active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Seeing mountains in the sky

Like cities the world over, Tokyo is constantly on the move. Blink and you’ve missed something. However, in my daily scurry around town, I sometimes see things that aren’t there.


Commuting to my office near the British Embassy, I have to change trains at Nagatacho, the most central of the hubs of the Tokyo subway system.

I soon learned how to minimize my transfer time. If I ride the Namboku line train at the very rear, I’ll be nearest the escalators up to the passage that takes me over to the Hanzomon line to complete my journey.

The moment the train doors open, I’m running. Japanese commuters – salarymen, as they’re disparagingly known – don’t tend to wake up until they’ve reached the coffee machine in their workplace. If I hesitate, just for a moment, I’ll find myself engulfed in a mass of slowly shuffling drones, inching their way zombie-like toward the escalator.

Worse still are the ones that stop, transfixed by the smartphone in their hand, oblivious to the crowds banking up behind them.

So I run. I’m a frightening foreign barbarian – they’re used to me by now. I dash for the escalator, bound up it, and do an instantaneous check of the moving walkways that stretch down the passage ahead.

They say a baseball hitter doesn’t have time to compute where to swing, the ball’s coming so fast. My calculation at this point is just like that.

In a split second, I decide whether I want to ride that moving walkway. It could save me a few seconds, but there are generally people standing on the left (‘flowerpots,’ as I call them), and if the ones on the right aren’t moving fast, I’m going to be stuck behind them. Stuck fuming. I’d rather power on down the central corridor than be trapped behind someone drifting on automatic with an idiot machine jammed in his face.

On either side of this passage, the walls hold rows of advertising posters in clear plastic frames. I hardly see them. I’m hurtling toward my Hanzomon connection.

I know that some of these posters change regularly. Somebody swaps them out. Somebody, I assume, polishes the frames. But on the right hand side, there is one that is always blank, as long as I’ve known it – just a clean sheet of white paper. And beyond it, next in line, there’s the Mountain Picture.

I’d catch it in the corner of my eye. The first few times, I must have seen it subliminally and thought nothing of it. But eventually I noticed that among all the ads and the blank frame there was a beautiful Japanese landscape fixed to the wall.

It wasn’t selling anything. It didn’t have text of any kind. It was just a landscape that flashed in my consciousness and was gone.

Eventually I grew to love that painting. In the brief glimpses I had of it, I could see how gorgeous it was. A virtuoso composition of the subtlest shades of gray and brown, it showed a distinctive sugarloaf mountain rising out of swirls of Japanese mist, with just the hint of a landscape opening beyond it under a dark and stormy sky.

It summed up everything I knew and loved about Japanese painting: so inscrutable and understated you’d hardly know there was anything there at all. A softly floating vista, hazing out of eternity.

One evening, hurrying home, I decided to pause for a moment and look closely at the painting. I knew I’d see details picked out in tiniest flecks of brushstrokes. Trees, hugging those precipitous slopes. A goat on a ledge, a laborer bent under his burden of rice stalks.

I slowed as I approached the frame, and I stared up at it.

It wasn’t a painting at all.

It was a piece of plain white paper like its neighbor, but this one had gone damp and wrinkled. Dirt had become lodged in the hollows. It must have been there for years.

I walked on in shock.

You have to pity me. My judgment is so poor, I can’t even tell Japanese fine art from random accumulations of dirt. What does that say about my ability to deal objectively with something truly outside my preconceptions and prejudices?

Japan isn’t really alien, not compared to whatever we’d encounter if we were out among the stars. Out there, we’d make outrageous assumptions. Percival Lowell was certain he saw canals on the surface of Mars because he’d reasoned that Martian society needed a means of carrying irrigation water from its poles. He saw what he expected to see.

In my novel Biome, my researcher Ruth Shannon encounters aliens that look like they ought to be intelligent. So she anthropomorphizes them, assuming their behavior to be akin to proto-humans, building homes and rearing children. She forgets that aliens are likely to be utterly different to ourselves.

Is my Nagatacho mountain actually a painting, after all? I continue to fly past it most days, and I just can’t be sure.

One thing I do know: the people who polish the frames in this otherwise obsessively clean subway station keep that dirty piece of paper hanging there for a reason. Maybe it commemorates something important. Maybe it’s only masquerading as damp and dirt, and it’s actually one of the masterpieces of modern art. Or maybe it’s there as a vicious lure to gullible foreigners like me, a way of reminding us of the folly of our perceived notions of what Japan means.

Or is that, itself, simply another preconception?

Don’t ask me. I don’t know. But I hope they never take it down.


Biome is available to buy at Amazon.


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