top of page














Alan Watts says the relationship between the present and the past is like that of a ship and its wake. This way of thinking flips the usual assumptions about causality and pre-destination upside down – instead of a cascade of unalterable yesterdays shoving our todays into an unknown tomorrow, Watts asks us to acknowledge that the power lies not in what was, but what is happening now. The present causes the past, not the other way around.

I wonder what Watts would’ve said if he had been with me on the Shinkansen train that carried us from Kyoto to Tokyo at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. The train charges forward, leaving virtually no wake, and although it moves of its own accord, it can only travel where the rails have been laid by many years of urban planning. Japanese efficiency further dictates that it can only arrive and leave each station within a narrow time window. True, it propels itself, but neither it nor the hundreds of people it transports have any say over where or when it travels.

During our nine days in Japan, I was continually confronted by the mystery that links past to the present. The day after our arrival, I attended a memorial service for my wife’s grandmother – a woman I had never met, but whose life spanned decades and continents. My wife is because her grandmother was, and somewhere in that web that links past and present I found myself standing on top of a hill, inhaling lungfuls of incense while listening to a Buddhist monk’s rhythmic incantations. The hill overlooked the site of this dead relative’s house – the house where my father-in-law grew up and where my wife and her brother played when they visited their parents’ homeland. It was razed to the ground so that a parking lot could be built (with no apologies to Joni Mitchell, I’m sure), and on this particular day only one car was parked in the lot – the one that held our luggage while we paid our respects to the former homeowner.

Our very next stop was a visit to a different grandmother, this one living out her ninety-fourth year in a retirement home in the town of Wakayama. She spoke no English and I spoke no Japanese, which freed me to take in the conversation that was unfolding across the generations gathered there. She said she never expected to live as long as she had managed to do, a familiar refrain to my ears—one that my own grandmother who had died six weeks previously at the age of 100 had invoked in the last few years of her life. In fact, there was much about this woman that reminded me of my grandmother – a matter-of-fact sensibility and quiet dignity that were communicated through facial expressions and mannerisms. The two women lived in similar eras, albeit on different sides of the world and at one point on different sides of a war whose wake was felt throughout much of their lives.

Living two days in Kyoto, surrounded by hundreds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; touring the famous Geiko districts, which have given birth to many of Japan’s most renowned geishas; even bathing in the traditional Japanese public baths, was like bobbing in the wake of Japan’s powerful surge through time. The life of a Geisha straddles time in a way that might frustrate Alan Watts. Fifteen-year old girls turn into 20 year-old women over the course of a five-year training that transforms them into the living conduits of traditional Japanese culture. They practice in the present the cultural prescriptions of the past: Japanese song, dance, and instruments. They are expected to eschew more modern innovations: McDonalds, Starbucks, smartphones, and Facebook are off limits to the geishas of Japan, who must conform to traditional ways in all they do. Teenaged apprentices are supported by more experienced mentors and by a house mother, who collectively structure and direct each aspect of the young geishas’ lives.

Alan Watts was of course influenced heavily by the culture in which I now found myself. Were one of these young Geishas able to surf Youtube, she could find early videos of Watts clothed in traditional Zen robes, painting traditional Japanese calligraphy, offering his audience a doctored-up flavor of Zen Buddhism which is perhaps more palatable to the Western spiritual diner. Standing in Kyoto, feeling the strong push of the past upon the lives of those who live in its present, I can’t help but wonder whether Watts’ emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity afforded by Zen were essential ingredients added by the Anglican priest to please the Western taste. I wonder whether the young geishas feel more like a ship casting its wake or a raft drifting

downstream, sometimes through heavy currents.

Our final days were spent in Tokyo. Upon arriving at the train station and setting foot into the city of 13 million people, bustling through the streets from morning to night amid bright lights, continuous traffic, and the smell of ramen and rain, I expected to feel like I had finally boarded the ship responsible for Japan’s long wake. The locals certainly ate as if they were about to embark upon a long, uncertain voyage; endless numbers of restaurants were full each night with mostly men in business attire. One night we opted for a meal consisting of Japanese Italian cuisine, which turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. The restaurant featured a jazz duo bopping their way through up-tempo, immaculately-rendered American standards. I had an Australian blended wine, too, which beautifully accompanied the food. The vibe that night was global-cosmopolitan: food, wine, and music whose origins were elsewhere, but owned by no one and served to everyone. Another night, we ate in a Chinese restaurant last visited by my in-laws 41 years ago as they were preparing to immigrate to the United States. The place looked like it had undergone very few changes since that time, maintaining its place in Tokyo history, shunning pressure to steer the ship toward a new destination or to take an uncharted course.

The present contains both the past and the future. If it did not, now would bear no resemblance to what was or what will be. For much of my short visit to Japan, I felt the strong continuity of past, present, and future, not because the current of time was driving the ship, but because the past was continually kept alive by the efforts of the present, and those efforts, in turn, breathed life into the future. What would become of the thousands of Japanese shrines were they not actively preserved and visited today? What would be left of my wife’s grandmother had we not travelled thousands of miles in memoriam of her life? The march of time moved to a slightly different tempo for me as we boarded the plane back home.

Living in the Wake

By Erik Helzer

bottom of page