It’s Sunday, July 2, as I begin this new entry, and my friend Chris and I are back on the Trans-Siberian Railway, having traveled from Vladivostok to Irkutsk and spent a day and a half in the town of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.
It seems like we’ve been traveling for days, yet we’re not even halfway between Vladivostok and Moscow. We’ll pass that milestone sometime this afternoon.
Akiko didn’t write that many poems about her train trip from Vladivostok to Moscow. But we do know about her Trans-Siberian journey from her account Pari made [パリまで、To Paris], which was published in four installments in the Asahi shimbun newspaper.*
And I’m really struck by the differences between our two journeys.
For starters, the train was much slower in 1912. She left Vladivostok at 5 am on May 8, and arrived in Moscow at 4 pm on May 19, having spent 11 nights and 12 days on the train. By contrast, we left Vladivostok at roughly 7 pm on June 27 and should arrive in Moscow the morning of July 5. That’s only eight nights and seven days, which includes a nearly 36-hour stopover to visit Lake Baikal.
Akiko was also traveling alone. Originally she had planned to make the trip accompanied by the Japanese ambassador to England, a man called Katō. But apparently she was unable to settle her affairs in time, and he had to leave without her.
I can’t imagine how daunting it must have been to set off across Russia by herself. As far as I know she could speak no languages other than Japanese. She traveled second class and had to share space on the train with strangers with whom she could not communicate. Moreover, it had only been six years since the Russians’ humiliating defeat in Russo-Japanese War. How uncomfortable might it have been to be a Japanese passenger traveling alone through Russia?
She did meet some Japanese people along the way. An Asahi shimbun correspondent called Yasojima met her in Vladivostok and made sure she got on the train okay. Four doors down was a Japanese man called Saitō who took her to the dining car, where she had some stew. Eventually she met an Englishman who’d spent many years working in Yokohama and could speak Japanese; he shared a meal with her as well and even loaned her money when she ran out of cash.
I am not traveling alone, of course. I considered it, but found the prospect so daunting that I kept putting off making any plans. Honestly, I’m not sure this would have happened at all if not for Chris. An experienced world traveler, he heard about my intention to do the Trans-Sib and instantly declared, “Oh, I’ll go with you!” Then kept gently bugging me about it (“So Naomi, are we actually going to do that trip?”) until I started organizing things out of sheer embarrassment.
Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing.
Neither one of us speaks much Russian besides the most rudimentary phrases. I would have preferred to know more before I arrived, and I did spend some time teaching myself Cyrillic and learning a few basics. But I had little time to study a new language in the months before I left. I also figured that my experience would more closely mimic Akiko’s if I knew almost nothing.
Of course we speak English, which is a huge advantage she didn’t have. Our drivers and guides (provided by the wonderful MIR Corporation) have all spoken excellent English; restaurant and hotel staff often speak at least a little; and even the stalwart and admirable provodnitsa who takes care of us on the train often has a smattering of words and phrases.
It’s been quite easy for me to interact with other people on the train. In my last entry, I referred to a Japanese gentleman I met between Vladivostok and Irkutsk; we met while buying boiled potatoes and cole slaw from a woman on the platform at one of our stops. Chris and I also chatted briefly with a young Uzbek soldier, on weekend leave from the army, who assumed we were from China but seemed happy to practice his English with two surprise Americans.
And I befriended a lovely couple, American citizens originally from Bangladesh who now call New Zealand home. Taufiq could speak Russian, which was very helpful, and he and his wife Shaheen were marvelous conversationalists. Our discussions ranged over everything from parenting to politics, film and literature, life histories and travel tales. I gave them one of the two copies of Landfalls I’d brought with me, and now I have friends to visit in Auckland.
Finally, Akiko was much younger than I am when she made this trip, and she had left a bunch of small children behind in Japan in order to travel to Paris to join her husband and other artists. Part of what interests me about this project is exploring the mindset of a woman who appeared to be able, at least temporarily, to put art and husband over children.
When I first wrote about Akiko thirty years ago, for my senior thesis, I was 23 years old and childless. Even then, I was struck by the audacity of her trip to Europe. Wow, I thought. Who leaves seven children, all under age ten, and travels abroad for six months?
A decade later, I was the same age Akiko was when she set off, and now I was a mother too. Wow, I thought again, but more emphatically: Wow. Like seriously. Who does that? And then, frazzled by the demands of parenting two small, rambunctious children, I’d sometimes think, I’d do it. I’d go on that train tomorrow.
But I still could not imagine leaving my children behind to go meet my husband on the other side of the world. Not for six months. Not even for a couple of weeks.
It may be cultural, it may be generational, it may be personal, it may be because we didn’t have relatives who could watch the boys for so long. But I could never have undertaken a trip of this kind while my children were young.
So it’s no coincidence that I’m doing this right after my youngest son graduated from high school. I miss my kids, but I didn’t have to leave them in anyone’s care, and I don’t feel guilty or particularly anxious about being away.
Quite a few of Akiko’s poems about the trip refer to her sadness over leaving her children for so long. She may have temporarily chosen art and husband over motherhood when she decided to go to Paris, but thoughts of her children did weigh on her. Here’s a poem she wrote after watching some kids in a playground in Europe:
Zō o ori rakuda o orite haha to yobi sono hitori dani hashiri koyokashi
If just one of them
would climb down
from the elephant
from the camel
and run to me, calling “Mother!”
My trip isn’t wholly different from hers, of course. She probably saw a lot of this:
Then there’s the tedium. My trip is shorter than hers. And I have someone to talk to. I am also not an easily bored person, and brought plenty of work and reading to do on board. Nevertheless, I recognize tedium as one of the challenges of this trip. She probably felt it too as she passed millions of birch trees on her way to Europe.
I have one more thing in common with Akiko as I make my own journey: my husband will also be meeting me in Paris. I can’t wait to see him.
Sanzen-ri waga koibito no katawara ni yanagi no wata no chiru hi ni kitaru
Seven thousand miles
to reach my lover’s side—
willow catkins were scattering
on the day that I arrived.
*Note: The details about Akiko’s Trans-Siberian trip are available from a number of sources, but the two I’ve relied on most for this blog post are Matsudaira Meiko’s 13-part series, Akiko no Pari 1912 nen [晶子のパリ1912年, Akiko’s Paris 1912], published in Tanka kenkyū [短歌研究, Tanka research] in 2000, and Mori Mayumi’s book Onna san-nin no Shiberiya tetsudō (女三人のシベリヤ鉄道, Three women on the Siberian Railway), Tokyo, 2012, Shūeisha (集英社文庫).