Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Elixir (3/4)

Apart from troubles with my Prius last year, I have no issues with Japan or the Japanese people. Mr. Matsui’s jokester persona threw me off at first, for he looked like a young Toshirō Mifune, ruggedly handsome, about to strike a dramatic pose and suddenly wield a samurai sword. If I had let my imagination get the best of me, I could have easily imagined us the heroes in an Akira Kurosawa movie.

Mr. Matsui insisted on taking me to Tokyo Disneyland on the way to "our destination," words he uttered rather cryptically in his broken English.  I didn't want to waste time at Disneyland, but I found it difficult to reason with him.  Anyway, though he phrased it as if he were doing me a favor, presumably giving me a taste of home or simply showing Japanese appreciation for American culture, I think he wanted an excuse to go on the rides.

As we passed through the gated entrance, I got a headache and queasy stomach at the mere sight of Mickey Mouse, or should I say the poor wretch suffocating in the Mickey Mouse outfit.  It was a long flight from L.A. and I was in no mood for amusement.  Not wanting to hurt Mr. Matsui's feelings or burst his bubble, I popped into a restroom stall to take a small amount of the elixir, barely enough to wet my whistle. Still in doubt as to whether I'd ever replenish my dwindling supply, I took the precaution of rationing the contents into a plastic eye drop bottle and limiting myself to small doses.  That precious green and black liquid did the trick.   I enjoyed the rides, ate lots of cotton candy, and told Mr. Matsui I loved him like a brother.

At the end of an exhausting day, he finally dropped me off at the Sakura Hotel in Tokyo near the main station.  The lights of the city and throngs of people walking its streets, coupled with a woefully inadequate amount of sleep, made me dizzy.  In the lobby Mr. Matsui made note of my room number and told me I'd receive a visit in my morning from people who can help me. I put on my mouseketeer ears I bought a couple hours earlier at Disneyland just to watch him stumble to his minivan in laughter. "You kill me, Mr. Viator!" he cried.

As he was about to step into the vehicle, I asked him if he could tell me anything about the elixir, or at least whom I supposed to meet.  He shook his head. "I'm just doing a favor for a friend in bringing you here.  I work for Mitsubishi and know nothing of this business."  He grinned like a schoolboy.  "But I enjoyed your company, especially on Space Mountain!"

Perhaps he saw the disappointed look on my face, for he added: "One thing I've heard...."


"I've heard that your bottle of elixir dates back to the first shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo, who used it to soothe his grieving heart."

Was this jokester pulling my leg again? I wondered.  I waited for him to break into a laugh and tell me he was kidding, but he didn't.

Mr. Matsui got into the minivan and rolled down the window.  "He built a shrine commemorating the elixir after a victorious battle," the Toshirō Mifune look-alike continued.  "It's near the city of Nagoya.  Have a good sleep, Mr. Viator."

I didn't sleep a wink that night. First, I couldn't find the elixir, even though I keep it in my hand bag with me at all times. My mind raced through the day. Did I take it out at Disneyland? No. I remember leaving it in the van under the seat. Did Mr. Matsui take it? After a mad search, I finally found the bottle on the nightstand, as I had absentmindedly removed it from the handbag and set it there when looking for my notebook earlier. Once I found it, I was still unnerved with the thought of having misplaced it. Moreover, I was wondering whether this trip to a foreign land was a waste of time. Would I really find the answer I had been looking for? Would I procure more of the elixir?

The next morning, as I was enjoying tea and toast in the lobby, a beautiful middle-aged Japanese woman in a lavender-green kimono escorted by two fifty-something men in suits seemed to glide through the entrance toward the front desk, bringing to mind stories I once read about the “floating world” in an Asian literature course. The hotel clerk pointed her in my direction. She was soft spoken, but she possessed a decent command of English.

“Mr. Viator?”


“My name is Hiromi.” The two men standing to her left and right smiled graciously, a gesture that made it difficult for me to determine whether these guys were bodyguards, corporate executives, or government officials of some kind. She never introduced them to me.

“I hope you enjoyed Disneyland and your stay here in Tokyo. We are here to take you to the Shogun. He will help you with your search.”

“My search?”

“For the elixir.”

I wanted her to say elixir to be clear, lest somewhere along the line a mistranslation or communication snafu turned things awry, and for all I know they were taking me to a magic pagoda or to Tokyo Disneyland again.

“Shogun?” I asked. “You still have a shogun in Japan?”

“You will see,” she responded laconically.

We drove to the Shinjuku station and took the Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” to Nagoya. Not long before our arrival, as landscapes whizzed by through the window, I got a bit more information. Hiromi explained that we were visiting her grandfather, Hideki Sukotomi, a direct descendant of the powerful medieval shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo.

“We refer to him as Shogun out of respect. He is a wise man and knows many things. He’s visited your country before, but that was many years ago, and his English is poor. I will translate for him.”

“Pardon me for asking, but how does all of this relate to the elixir?”

“My grandfather owns the rights to Nishishinjuku, the company that manufactures and bottles it.” She looked at me with a quizzical face, as if I should know something but evidently didn’t.

From the train station, we took another minivan shuttle through the city. I figured we’d meet Hiromi’s grandfather in either a high-rise building or a palace. You never know what you’re going to get in Japan, I thought to myself. Hiromi, for instance, looked like she walked out of the seventeenth century; yet, her English and sense of self-confidence clearly marked her as a postmodern woman. Anyway, we drove across a bridge just outside the city surrounded on both sides with cypress trees punctuated with wooden and stone dwellings as far as the eye could see. Apart from a car or truck here and there, it could have been a scene from a Hiroshige woodcut.

The Shogun, Hiromi's grandfather, looked like a cross between Yoda and the late Pat Morita. He was ninety years old, yet quite sound of mind. “You wish to know more about the elixir?” translated Hiromi.

He beckoned me to follow him through a bonsai garden, and all of us trailed behind him in respect as he hobbled along with his cane. We walked a vermillion bridge over a beautiful pond until we reached a large warehouse. The two “bodyguards,” whom I later found out were the Shogun’s bastard sons, opened a metal overhead door.

I beheld myriads of workers in slick jump suits of different colors. I had once taken the Jack Daniels distillery tour in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and that was my only frame of reference.  It didn't compare to this place!  Babbling brooks zigzagged across  the warehouse floor, ultimately leading across magnificently sculpted gardens and toward the manufacturing plant, which looked like a mini-version of the famous Himeji Castle.

One question that had been occurring to me, and perhaps to you as well, is why the makers of the elixir did not promote their product as a cure-all that could rid the world of war and hate. I mean, once people took a gulp of this precious stuff, countries would beat their swords into plowshares, the Israeli and Palestinian would join hands, and Al-Qaeda would turn into an after-school club. All the while, the Shogun's company would make a handsome profit!

So I asked the old man, as he led us, in a slow but purposeful gait, from the manufacturing plant to the Zen garden just across a koi fish pond, why he hadn't marketed the elixir in places like China and the United States.  Although Hiromi translated my question, I initially thought the Shogun had not heard her, for he did not respond.

Once he got to the edge of the garden, he sat down on a stone bench and summoned me to sit next to him. I realized even before he spoke that he had in fact heard the question.

"I have seen terrible things during the Great War," he said quietly.  Hiromi had to lean in to pick up his words.  It took me a few minutes to realize he was talking about World War II and that these comments really served as prefatory remarks before addressing my question about the elixir.

What I got from Hiromi's translation was that he had served in the Japanese Imperial Army as a junior officer.  I wasn't sure if I was getting the whole story, however, for her words seemed suspiciously sparse compared to the rather long and plentiful discourse coming from the old man's lips.  Needless to say, I didn't tell him that my grandfather Dennis Viator served in the War and to this day hates "Nips."  Granted,  he rarely left the boiler room on the U.S.S. McKinley and never saw action.  Moreover, he despises Jews, African Americans, Chinese, hippies, gays and lesbians, Elvis Presley, and divorce lawyers, even though he never fought against them in a war.

"This garden you see before you was once the site of a shrine.  Hundreds of years ago Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, celebrated the elixir..."

"After winning a battle!" I said excitedly, remembering Mr. Matsui's comment.  I startled the Shogun with my interruption of Hiromi's translation, but he smiled politely when he realized I already knew the story.

After a bit of reminiscing on the evils of war and his regrets, he told me that the elixir's effect on people is rather diverse.  Most people who have tasted it, like me, and like him, gain a feeling of peacefulness and euphoria.  He likened his experience to walking through the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine in May as cherry blossoms fall and whisper the names of fallen heroes.  That's not exactly my experience, but to each his own.

"But not everyone who has tasted of the viscous juice has had such a blessing.  Some people, for reasons we don't know, have had adverse reactions to it."

"You mean they get sick to their stomach and vomit out the contents?" I asked.

"Not exactly.  Their thoughts turn ugly, and once they partake of the liquid they'll stop at nothing to get more of it."  The Shogun pulled out a small handful of fish food pellets from his breast pocket and tossed them into a little canal that wrapped around the garden and fed back into the pond.  Koi, otherwise tranquil and elegant, jumped and splashed like ravenous beasts as they nudged each other out of the way and fought for every morsel.

He turned to me and asked whether I knew the name Shoko Asahara.  I nodded no.

"He was the leader of a cult called Aum Shinrikyo," added Hiromi, though the Shogun didn't say anything.

"Ah, yes!  They attacked the subways of Tokyo with Sarin gas back in the Nineties."

"That's right," she responded.  Her grandfather nodded in acknowledgment that I now knew about whom he was talking.

It might seem weird to my readers that I remember such things, but I make it my business to know the dark deeds that humans so often perform in this Theater of the Absurd.  Moreover, I have a morbid interest in weird cults.

"Why do you ask?"

The Shogun explained that Asahara, or his blind followers rather, tried to steal an entire shipment of elixir bound for South Korea.  The police arrested the men, and the company was able to keep a tight lid on its manufacturing operationsfor a while anyway.  The Aum Shinrikyo are no longer a threat, but somehow the word got out about the elixir and its potential for controlling the world.  A few years ago some tattooed hoodlums, likely working for a crime syndicate out of Tokyo, namely the yakuza based in the Ginza district, infiltrated the plant under the guise of a landscaping company.

The Shogun called forth one of his two bastard sons standing in the distance.  He came over and showed me a scar on the back of his neck.  A youth struck him with a knife when he chased him off the premises a few years ago.

Knowing that my time with the Shogun was running out, I asked him about the shifting green and black colors of the elixir.  Again, I don't think Hiromi, for reasons I can only guess, was faithfully translating the old man's words.  What I gathered, though, was that, as I suspected, these colors represent the life force in all of us and the darkness that resides in our hearts as well.  He likened the ingredients of the liquid to yin and yang.  Granted, I'm paraphrasing what he said, or at least what Hiromi claimed he said.

I ended up leaving the place with a case of elixir, which for some strange reason consisted of twenty-three bottles.  (Believe me, I requested a twenty-fourth bottle, thinking initially that they were ripping me off.)  I wanted more of the stuff, but that's all they'd give me.

While I left Japan with more of the elixir than I had when I arrived, I also came away with more questions.  Why, for instance, would they allow me, a complete stranger to them, to carry off such dangerous cargo?  Why did I find a bottle of it in Istanbul?  Why do they sell the elixir at all?  (Later, Hiromi answered my question about marketing, telling me that they ship the elixir to certain vendors out of financial necessity, but they would never distribute the bottles on a mass scale.)  I mean, anyone could have these adverse reactions to the elixir, right?  And does one really need the adverse reactions?  Anyone could use the oozing potion for evil purposes, whether they've tasted it or not.  Finally, and most vexing of all, is my life in danger if the wrong people find out what I have in my possession?

Hiromi told me to avoid strangers and not to trust anyone.  Most of all, she said, I should place the bottles in an unassuming briefcase and never let it out of my sight.  These were the thoughts going through my head as Mr. Matsui met me at the Ginza station in Tokyo hours later.

My fears were not unfounded, for as we walked down the street toward the famous Sony Building where I hoped to purchase a good video camera before returning to the hotel, four young men in sneakers, t-shirts, and loose-fitting pants, bearing muscular forearms with dragon tattoos, started to follow us.

Mr. Matsui spotted them before I did and directed me into a woman's clothing shop.  I was puzzled, but I soon found out that he had something to tell me and he didn't want to alert the men following us that he knew of their presence.

"Look out the window, across the street, Mr. Viator."

"What?  Those guys over there?"


"Men.  Those men over there?  Are they following us?"

"Yes, they follow us."

What happened in the next hour was quite a scare, and, frankly, only the distance of time has allowed me to write about it with a modicum of calm.