Tuesday, 29 March 2022

The Literary Ghost of “The Orient’s No.1 Elevator”

I love it when people stumble on some piece of writing from years ago and make a sudden new connection with it. Last night I happened by chance to be glancing through my junk email and came across an interesting message that had somehow ended up there.

A photographer, Stan Gielewski, had come across an article I had written for the Japan Times in 2016 about a mysterious object called “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” which used to briefly exist - over a hundred years ago - in a town called Wakanoura in central Japan and sent me a letter about it. He wrote:

“Searching for the exact time when it was built, I just came across your writing about the elevator in Wakanoura…I used to know Wakanoura like the back of my hand. I was lucky to find and preserve a few large format photos from that period, and a few are directly related to this elevator. I took a quick snapshot of one with my phone a while back, and I thought I'd share it with you.

It's a view of Wakanoura taken from the top of the elevator, so this has to be Wakanoura around 1912. I decided to share it with you as even very few Japanese know about that elevator. I spent a lot of time talking about the old Wakayama with like-minded locals and antique shop owners, and they have never seen photos like this before.”

Here then is the historical photograph, from around 1912, he sent me. The elevator pictured was a bizarre, short-lived historical curiosity, but also occupies a significant place in Japanese literary history. To explain that story, let me quote a section of my 2016 article:

“Over a century ago, Wakanoura, a small coastal town near the city of Wakayama, was at the top of the list when it came to places of outstanding natural beauty and amongst the top tourist destinations in central Japan.

So renowned was Wakanoura that “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” one of the first steel elevators in Japan, had been constructed there to allow visitors to ascend a hilltop and take in the impressive vistas. Yet today Wakanoura is largely forgotten, and the fabled elevator long gone.

This lost history is brought to life in the first half of Natsume Soseki’s novel “Kojin” (“The Wayfarer”), serialized from 1912 to 1913, in which a well-to-do Tokyo family makes a visit to the Kansai region and decides to escape the summer heat in Osaka by visiting Wakanoura; “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” occupies a memorable place in the plot.

Soseki, whose novels were serialized in both the Kanto and Kansai editions of the Asahi Shimbun, had made a lecture tour of the Kansai region in 1911. After his return to Tokyo, he incorporated a Kansai setting into his novel “The Wayfarer” — perhaps a nod of recognition to his fervent Kansai readership: he had not forgotten them.

Soseki himself visited Wakanoura in August 1911, before giving a lecture, “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan,” in Wakayama City.

“Last night I stayed in Wakanoura,” he said during the lecture. “When you go to Wakanoura there are a variety of things to see like Sagarimatsu, Gongen-sama and the Kimii-dera Temple. But I also saw the elevator described as “The Orient’s First to 200 Feet Above Sea Level” constantly taking sightseers up and down from the back of my lodgings to the top of the stone hill. Actually I too, like a bear in a zoo, was put inside the metal bars of a cage and lifted to the top of the mountain.”

Soseki was the latest in a stream of famous visitors to Wakanoura that stretched back more than 1,000 years.

One of the earliest documented visits was taken by Emperor Shomu in 724. He visited Wakanoura and admired the string of islands collectively known as Tamatsushima, which are celebrated in the “Manyoshu,” the eighth-century collection of Japanese court poetry. Since then, the sea has retreated and only one of those islands, Imose Yama, still remains.

The Sandankyo bridge leading to Imose Yama — commissioned in 1621 by Tokugawa Yorinobu, the 10th son of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu— was depicted by the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige.

But I was curious to learn more about the curiosity known as “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.”

I turned back to Soseki’s “The Wayfarer.” In his novel, Wakanoura — and the elevator — is not only a scenic backdrop but it is used by Soseki to explore his wider ideas about human will.

From the beginning of his writing career, in 1905, Soseki had been engaged with German philosophical thought, considering how our will, intellect and emotion interact. He often used the image of a cliff as a symbol of “willfulness.” In “Gubijinso” (“The Poppy”), a wilful character is metaphorically described as throwing the weak-willed down a cliff, and at the beginning of Soseki’s 1910 novel “Mon” (“The Gate”), the timorous protagonist is described as living at the bottom of a cliff.

In “The Wayfarer,” a haughty intellectual called Ichiro has doubts concerning his estranged wife, Nao, and is determined to find out whether she is secretly in love with his brother Jiro. His over-reaching willfulness and confidence in his intellect means he simply must know what desires his wife is hiding. When the whole family spends a few days in Wakanoura, Ichiro attempts to use his brother as a detective and persuades him to make a day trip to nearby Wakayama with her and report back with observations of his sister-in-law.

In order to have a private conversation with Jiro about his scheme, Ichiro travels with him in “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator,” remarking Hamlet-like that, in a similar way to the elevator cage, the whole world is a prison. The next day, carrying on the conversation at Kimii-dera Temple, Ichiro asks his brother to investigate Nao.

When Jiro travels with her to Wakayama for the day, the greater will of Mother Nature overwhelms Ichiro’s schemes: a storm prevents them returning and they must spend the night together in Wakayama. Far from accessing the hidden secrets of Nao’s affections, Ichiro is now led to complete distraction wondering what has transpired between his brother and his wife.

In Soseki’s imaginative universe, “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator” becomes a symbol of the limits of human will when pitted against the grand will of the universe, represented by the landscape and climate of Wakanoura itself.

If you take the 90-minute train ride from Osaka to Wakanoura, you are heading to one of the former great scenic spots of Japan, but also a site where a philosophical battle once played out in one of Japan’s literary classics.

The elevator is long gone — and is hardly remembered. After making repeated enquiries, I eventually discovered a photo of it on display in the Tamatsushima Shrine.

When I asked what had become of the contraption, I was told that it had been torn down for its metal in 1916, during World War I. It seems the elevator was built in 1910 and only existed for a mere six years. Soseki would have appreciated the irony that an object that he had deployed as a metaphor of overbearing wilfulness had enjoyed such a brief existence.

Consider what has happened to all those beautiful natural vistas that Wakanoura was once famous for. Today, those views are interrupted by urban sprawl — a chief reason why the area is not today as famous as it once was.

Industry, a particularly human brand of wilfulness, has affected the traditional natural beauty of Wakanoura and imposed itself on the landscape.

Many people think that to have a profound travel experience, you should traipse to some scene of unchanging natural beauty, such as Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture, a sliver of land ranked as one of one of Japan’s three scenic views, or Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, another of the country’s three most scenic views. For centuries, poets have written about them and artists have painted them.

But Wakanoura offers a more intriguing study: It has become a sharp juxtaposition of changing and unchanging elements — of temples and shrines arguing for a renouncement of the world, and industries in the process of shaping the world.

If you wish to get to the bottom of the eternal, epic battle between human wilfulness and the will of nature, then pack a copy of Soseki’s “The Wayfarer” and head to Wakanoura, still haunted by the ghost of “The Orient’s No. 1 Elevator.””

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