Creative Nonfiction

Zen, Miles Davis, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family by James Roth

By James Roth
Humanity has lessened since its peak of billions; selfishness proved to be as mortal as they were…

Zen, Miles Davis, and the Dysfunctional Japanese Family

By James Roth

Several years ago on Tuesday afternoons I took a train from Akita to Noshiro, on the
northeastern coast of Japan, to teach an English conversation class at the regional offices of
Tohoku Denryoku, a power company. Akita, a city with a population of a little less than three
hundred thousand, is the capital of the prefecture of the same name, and Noshiro, the second
largest city, has a population of about sixty thousand.
This is rural Japan, an agricultural region famous for its rice. The slogan for Akita
Komachi, the local rice, famous throughout Japan, is “The rice that beautiful women are
raised on.” The abundance of clean water and lack of a scorching summer sun contribute to
the quality of the rice, while the lack of sunshine during the winter months, locals believe,
contributes to the fair complexions of the women; hence their beauty. (This winter darkness
also might have contributed, in the eighties, to the highest suicide rates in Japan, mostly
among the elderly, who moved in with their children and saw themselves as a burden on the
family. The government has since then addressed the problem, and the suicide rate has
When I was going to Tohoku Denryoku to teach, I was new to Japan, and the trip
offered me the opportunity to experience the country the way Westerners in Tokyo, Osaka,
and Kyoto rarely do, if they travel to the Tohoku region at all. The train was diesel electric

and passed fields of rice that stretched to the edges of the western horizon before rising up
into the hills, where there were stands of pines, vegetable gardens, apple orchards, and little
black ponds in which women floated around in wooden tubs harvesting something from the
surface. What, I had, at the time, no idea. Now and then the train passed a Shinto shrine
tucked away in the pines. They were all rather austere and weather-beaten; paper, like tails
from a kite, hung from the tori. Crossing the tracks now and then were narrow lanes that
flowed along the contour of the land with the naturalness of a mountain brook.
After passing through this bucolic countryside for about a month, I decided I would
like to do more than experience it as a painting that swept past the window of the train once a
week. I bought a road bicycle. On weekends I went cycling. On several occasions I headed
north, using the rail-line as a reference. (At this time there were no GPSes.) This means of
navigating had its surprises, always pleasant ones, such as heading up a valley on a paved
road, only to find that it came to an end at a hamlet of traditional thatched roof farm houses, a
rare sight even in rural Akita prefecture.
Once I stayed on the highway near the rail-line and entered the village of Yamamoto,
north of Noshiro, and area that was unfamiliar to me, but the village was not. It was like
others I had ridden through: simple homes of wood with corrugated metal roofs, flower and
vegetable gardens out front, and along the main street a bicycle shop and several liquor and
tobacco stores, which often outnumbered the supermarkets. There was usually one
supermarket, one bank, and one post office.
In Yamamoto a Buddhist temple in the middle of town caught my attention. The
shadows of cedars on the temple’s grounds cast very dark, cool, and inviting shadows. A
flagstone pat led through the cedars to the entrance of the temple, passing under an imposing
wooden gate in which there were carvings of figures that had frightening expressions–jagged

teeth and fiery eyes. I had no idea what any of this represented, only that it had nothing to do
with any religion I was familiar with. This piqued my interest, the satanistic motif–at least to
me–and I proceeded along the path, coming to the temple’s entrance. The doors were open.
My ignorance of objects related to Buddhism made me think think that I was seeing
things imbued with great spiritual importance: a brass figure of the Buddha surrounded by
flames, incense burners, a bell hanging from a thick rope, scrolls, a taiko drum, and
photographs of deceased priests. The one thing that was immediately understandable was a
wooden box at my feet that solicited offerings.
Just then someone broke the mystery of it all by calling out, “Hello!”
Standing off to my side was a man about my age—mid-thirties, dressed in jeans and a
Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt. His hair was cut short, Buddhist priest style.
“The temple is very beautiful,” I said.
He shrugged modestly.
“What does all this mean?” I asked.
He smiled. “All religion have relics,” he said. “Doesn’t the Catholic Church?
Meaning? Why explain it? My name is Yamamoto.”
We shook hands. He had an unusually strong handshake for a Japanese man, who
seem to think a firm grip is rude.
“So the town is named after you?” I said.
He let out a cynical laugh. “Yes,” he said. “My ancestors are from here for many
hundred years.”
I had no idea if he was joking or being truthful. “You’re cycling?” he asked, looking at
my tight, Lycra shorts. “Why don’t you take a rest in my home? My wife prepare for you
fresh melon.”

I could hardly resist this invitation, both the melon and the chance to see how a
Buddhist priest lived.
He showed me past a well, where some plastic buckets were lined up on a stone
wall—there seemed to be meaning in this, too—and we came to the entrance of his home,
which was attached to the temple. Like so many Japanese homes, it was a sprawling,
patched together building, two stories, made of sea green fiberglass siding, a red metal roof,
and some wood trim. It looked like it had been added onto about every ten or fifteen years.
“Please,” he said.
I stepped into the genkan—an area where shoes and umbrellas are kept—and took off
my cycling shoes and stepped up onto the tatami mat floor. The floors of Japanese homes are
all six or ten inches above the floor of the genakan.
Yamamoto showed me down a long corridor to a living room which opened out onto a
garden. In the garden there was a small pond in which koi of various colors swam and pines,
maples, and cherry trees. In a corner was a large, moss-covered stone. A pleasant gurgling of
water was coming from the flow of water into the pond. The garden was so Japanese. It was
if what I’d imagined a Japanese garden was had actually merged with the reality of one, a rare
event, the merging of the two.
“I like your garden,” I said.
“That!” he said. “Have you been to Kyoto?”
I told him that except for changing planes in Tokyo I hadn’t been out of Akita
He looked at me in disbelief. “There are gardens in Kyoto. Akita is a country area,”
he said, a bit disdainfully.
“Akita is all I know,” I said, “And I like it. It hasn’t been invaded by tourists.”

“Stay here for a few years and you not think that,” he said. “I have to live here. I am
my father’s son. I must living here.”
We were now at a table, sitting on cushions, called zabutons. He rapped his knuckles
on the table, and a moment later a woman in a white apron appeared at a door that led, I
assumed, to a kitchen. Seeing me, she knelt down on the tatami and bowed forward, almost
touching her forehead to the mats.
“My wife Kumiko,” Yamamoto said.
I’d thought that she was his housekeeper. I smiled; she wouldn’t meet my eyes, only
responded with a restrained nod.
Yamamoto said something to her, and she rose, brushing off her knees, and returned
to the kitchen.
He then proceeded to tell me about himself. He’d spent several years in Los Angeles
teaching Zen Buddhism. On Friday and Saturday nights he’d played jazz trumpet at a club in
Malibu. He stood and went to a nearby chest and returned with a photo of himself playing the
trumpet in a smoke-filled night club, the outlines of some Western faces appearing like
ghosts behind him.
Kumiko entered the room again carrying a tray, on which rested a large bottle of Kirin
beer and two small glasses. She set the tray on the table. Yamamoto took the beer and glasses
and filled them and pushed a glass toward me.
“Please,” he said.
“I’m cycling,” I said. “Tea is fine. And some melon.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. He said something to Kumiko, and she brought in a plate of
watermelon, the rind cut off, the melon cut into star shapes.
At that moment a boy of about six or seven burst into the room and went to a TV

which was in a corner and turned it on, picked up a PlayStation console and began to play
Grand Theft Auto.
“Yoji,” Yamamoto said, “my son. He play while he is young. One day he be priest.
Every day old people prepare for death. I be tired of this. We drink.”
He drank some beer; I did too, to please him. “Can you explain Zen Buddhism to
me?” I asked.
“You know Miles Davis, ‘Kind of Blue’?”
I said I did. It was my favorite album. I’d discovered a jazz club in Akita called Rondo
and went there now and then to listen to jazz, played on CDs.
“You know ‘So What’ you know Zen,” Yamamoto said.
Listening to “So What,” I always thought it was the only piece of music I could listen
to continuously for the rest of my life. Each time I listened to it, it was as if I was listening to
it for the first time.
“So is that how you taught Zen in L.A.?” I asked, “by having your students listen to
‘So What’?”
“Sometimes we meditated, but . . . better to listen to ‘So What.’”
He tossed down the remainder of beer in his glass.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You should be married. Every man needs a wife. You see how my wife take care of
“I’ve noticed,” I said.
“You probably not cook for yourself.”
“I cook,” I said.

“Yes, you American.” He chuckled to himself. “A man should never enter the
kitchen,” he said.
“It’s difficult to cook if I don’t,” I said.
He hadn’t understood me—or was intent on ignoring me—and proceeded to drink
some more beer. Kumiko came into the room with another plate of watermelon cut up into
stars. She seemed to me to be an Akita beauty—her complexion was pale. She was gentle.
Yamamoto finished off the bottle of beer, and Kumiko raced off to the kitchen to fetch
another bottle. She poured the beer into his glass and he drank. She returned to the kitchen,
and she she had he said, “Kumiko is too small.” He cupped his hands over his breasts. “I like
American size.” He pushed his chest out. Then he got up. “I toilet,” he said.
He walked off, and Kumiko came into the room and sat at the table with me. “Thank
you for the melon,” I said.
“You’re welcome,”
She glanced over at Yoji and said something to him in a scornful way, and Yoji said
something back to her without turning his attention away from the screen. “I don’t like this,”
she said. “Children playing video games.”
“Your English is quite good,” I said.
“I studied at university in Tokyo.”
In the brief moment before Yamamoto returned, I imagined my entire life with her,
she was that magical and enchanting. I was new to Japan and eager to to start a new life
there. And then Yamamoto returned.
“I must go,” I said, and stood up.
Yamamoto, Kumiko, and I went back to the genkan, and I put on my cycling shoes.
We said our goodbyes. Kumiko and I exchanged fretful glances.

Five minutes later I was on my bicycle, riding through a dark forest of pines, hearing
the Miles Davis group play “So What.”

Photo by Eriks Abzinovs on

James Roth, an English Language Fellow in the U.S. State Department’s EFL Program, is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in several magazines and journals. His first novel, “The Opium Addict,” is forthcoming. He has taught in Japan, China, Jordan, and Zimbabwe.