JAPAN

 


TOKYO Kazuko and Mo met me at Narita Airport, which is way, way out in the country away from Tokyo, and still being protested and picketed against by remnants left of the farmers who were deposed from their lands in a slick political maneuver to create the airport out there twenty-five years ago. I was lucky Kazuko and Mo could meet me there and shepherd me in the cold weather to the right train in to town an hour away, and from there to the right subway to Kazukos house. Kazuko Ohta, is a professor of American studies at a womens university in another city. She has been coming to Baton Rouge several years for field studies of Cajuns, and occasionally stayed with me. The last couple of times she brought Motoshi Nakatani, a stupendous chef masquerading as a grad student.

When I picked up my bags, one had a tear in it about three inches long on an outside pocket. KIA had me fill out a form, and two days later an almost identical replacement was delivered to Kazuko's apartment in Tokyo. Only it was sturdier than mine and had one more outside pocket. By the way, at customs, the "No cigarettes, no liquor" mantra whisked me through customs with no bags opened, again.

I jet-lag-slept in my warm longjohns the rest of the day after we got to Kazuko's, and that seemed to completely clear it up for this time. The first morning, she and I went to view cherry brossoms along the moat outside the Imperial Palace. Aaaaaah ... intoxicating. They can call them cherry "brossoms" any time they want as long as they're that beautiful. If I ever learn Japanese, I'm going to have to forget about distinguishing between L and R, and use something in between, and also, for both W and H, learn to put out my lower lip and blow upwards. That's when it has a vowel after it. Or doesn't.

After cherry brossoms and a nap, we subwayed over to Mo's for a sumptuous dinner cooked by him in his teensy tinsey apartment where every millimicrometer of space counts. He let me catch upon email on his computer. We sat on tatami mats around a low table to eat, and laid plans for going to Kyoto three days of the next week all together, including his friend Maho who joined us for dinner.

Next day was a subway ride down to a section of town where there's a big temple guarded by a huge thunder god, and where the road up to it from its enormous gateway is lined with a jillion small shops and booths selling every gaudy thing imaginable. I did buy one set of playing cards, and my guests at home in Pennsylvania are going to have to learn to play it when I invite them over. The designs on them are based on the seasons and their plants and animals, and it's as convoluted and tricky a game as you could wish for.

That evening, Kazuko took me to watch a Kabuki play, but only one segment of it, though, because she wisely guessed how long my Western mind could suspend incredulity. To us their music sounds more anguished than melodious. I couldn't stop thinking of how Uncle Wendell and Lou used to tell about relishing Kabuki theater when they were based here after WWII and he was General MacArthur's secretary. I wished they were there to share my evening with, and please explain a lot of it to me in American! Kazuko was in a sort of trance: "Ah, it was so good to hear good music again."

Kazuko had to go to meetings at her university the next day, so I went along with her on the train, all bundled up against the cold weather, and did my email on her office computer while she met. I almost lost the whole day's output, but the university's webmaster came and rescued it for me, bless him.

That evening, we went to Kazuko's college roommate, Teruko's, home for dinner. It came in many, many dishes. I was beginning to get pretty good at chopsticks, and this kind of food spurred me on to unimagined heights and probably quite unorthodox dexterity. It was sumptuous, but don't ask me the names of what we ate. After the meal, they were showed family photo albums, including some photos with her and her girls in kimono, which led to getting their kimono (you dont add s for plural) out, which led to dressing me up in one, with its huge obi tied in back, and taking pictures, which led to giving me a kimono the hostess can't use any more! It's heavy silk. They all declared I was born to wear kimono. (The Indian ladies had all sworn I looked born to wear saris, too.)

NIKKO We went and stayed in a traditional Japanese Inn in Nikko National Park north of Tokyo, way up in the mountains where there was still snow. I'd been hungry for some cold mountain air ever since getting just a scrap of it at Kilimanjaro on the way home from Loitokitok over a month ago. Finally, finally, I got to use my galoshes in snow! We took Pongo and Peace Bears picture in a snow bank and in a large stone lantern.

Nikko is reminiscent of Colorado small towns and their holiday atmosphere. But our inns dinner, served on what seemed a 6-inch-high table in the middle of our futon room, had fifteen little dishes on it, everything unrecognizable and scrumptious. I also knew we weren't really in Colorado because of the temples and shrines we visited next day, all elaborately embellished and lavishly decorated.

One I especially wished Id had a grandchild along to enjoy with me had hemispherical boulders strewn around the grounds, all lying on their flat side. Five small stones were placed around each boulder to look like a turtles feet and head.

HONJO One Thursday I took a late afternoon train trip out to Honjo northwest of Tokyo to visit the Watanabes, who had invited me to visit their home sight unseen. Noriko, the mom, is a close friend of my cousin Dorothy's daughter Becky and her Japanese husband Hide (He-day). Until last September, they lived there in Honjo. I was going to visit them, but they up and moved to California! At least Becky and the three kids did, to give the children American educations. But Hide owns his company and couldn't leave right away. Anyway, Becky emailed back, "Alas, we won't be here, but my friend Noriko wants you to come visit them instead!" So I got acquainted with Noriko by email, and she did invite me to go visit them.

To get to Norikos home, I took a commuter train out of Tokyo, exactly like catching the el from Chicago out to Wheaton. The train even sounded exactly the same! The multi-storied housing and industrial developments thinned out the farther you get out of town, giving way to grid-patterned small towns it was just amazing how familiar it all seemed. Then she met me at the station and we got into her Japanese Mitsubishi Pajero, which feels a lot like our big sports utility vehicles. When we walked into their two-story house, daughter Makiko (11) was just lifting a newly baked loaf of bread out of the bread maker. It was toooo much.

"Hai! Hai!" they say there, upon meeting.

Oh yes naturally we doffed shoes at the front door, and Noriko gave me new house slippers, and get this, she inserted warmed insoles that they use skiing! Hot actually. Again, toooo much. I was in heaven. Right away we had tea. And hot bread. The minute I arrived after that long cold trip from Tokyo, she sat me down on the livingroom floor at a low, blanket-covered table where I could extend my legs under it into delicious warmth provided by an electric rug (like an electric blanket), with the warmth held in by the covering blanket, on top of which is a tabletop, and upon which she put the cup of hot tea. Mmmm ^_^ . Noriko is delightful. Meryl Streep looks like her.

Her husband, Tetsuya, who works for Hitachi, drives only ten minutes to work, "but works too late always," and wasnt in yet. Their older teenage daughter, Mariko, came home later for the weekend. She lives in a distant town with Norikos folks in order to go to a better high school.

In the evening, I displaced Makiko at the computer. The minute she got home from school, she was on it emailing her friends, just like American kids used to get on the telephone to each other right away after parting. Shes a high energy girl. After dinner she practiced on her electronic keyboard, and later sat the leg-warming table weaving a friendship bracelet of colored strings.

Noriko and her family treated me like royalty. Her two teenage daughters reminded me so much of our own three girls at that age, totally involved with the excitements of a new school term starting up, rejoining old and meeting new school friends, and piano lessons. Tetsuya, their dad, builds and flies radio-controlled model airplanes. I got pictures of Pongo, in a white scarf, and Peace Bear, with Tetsuyas Snoopy dog on his lap, sitting in one of the planes. Noriko also took me to visit another family who live on the grounds of a Buddhist temple because the dad is the priest, as is his dad, and as was his granddad, and as will be his son. Hes very jolly, and reminded me of the Dalai Lama. He is also a university professor, in social studies. He and his wife and little four-year-old daughter showed us through the temple. What a day!

One of the delicious dishes Noriko served while I was there is called "shabbu shabbu," which roughly means "swim swim," because it's strips of raw meat you dip (swim) briefly in boiling water then in a sesame sauce, then pop into your mouth. Umm-mm. Another ummm-mm was eels, amazingly. Kazuko's sister later served another shabbu shabbu another time in town, different meat, different sauce, same ummm-mm. You get better at chopsticks real fast when there's this kind of stuff on the ends of them.

Hide, who's living in town now, joined us Saturday, then accompanied me back to town the next day to see me safely through the train/subway interchanges, thank goodness I mean thank Hide! Now, I couldnt wait to get together with Becky in California in June.

"Next we're doing Kyoto," I wrote home. "I'm composing this at Mo's, having done the Imperial Palace gardens and the National Museum of Modern Art with him today, before going to a grocery store for ingredients for another indescribably fine meal cooked by him, Chinese this time. But I gotta go, so he can get me home before the last train leaves. Do you think I'm enjoying Japan?!!!"

Back in Tokyo, I went to Aoyama University to visit Gail Okuma, another friend of Beckys. She teaches English, and let me use the department computer to fire off some email while waiting for her to get free for lunch. Shes Hawaiian, married to a Japanese. They, too, dont want their two children educated there, so when they get old enough, she tentatively plans to go to the U.S. alone with them for their education, as Becky has done, then return to Japan. (Noriko, too, had expressed dissatisfaction with their girls educational situations in Japanese schools, but theyre making the best of it.) Gail bought me a marvelous lunch (salmon), then we went to Starbucks for desert and coffee.

KYOTO Kazuko and I Bullet-Trained to Kyoto two-and-a-half hours south to see temples and geishas. She says theres as big a difference between the people of the two cities as between our U.S. Southerners and Northerners. Part of the difference stems from Kyotos strong sense of having been the original capital city. Kyo means capital, and To means city, with the syllables reversed for upstart Tokyo when it took over as the capital centuries ago. The differences show up in idioms she says. In Tokyo for "thank you" they say "Arigato," as in "your kindness is so hard to find (rare)," whereas in Kyoto it's "Okini" as in "your kindness is so large." In Tokyo, they bark "Hai" to each other several times at the beginning and ending of all conversations whereas in Kyoto they'll say it more softly, almost like our "Hi" and "Bye." That difference I could easily hear, but when Kazuko asked if I'd noticed how even the peoples faces looked different, I bowed out. Really! Well, actually, when I used to Amtrak back to the South from visiting my mother in Pennsylvania, when we got south of D.C. where Southerners predominated among the passengers, it did seem like I could see the differences.

We stayed the first night in Kyoto in a ladies hotel which was originally built as a detached part of the palace for the imperial family, so there was scarcely a square millimeter of space left undecorated. In our room, one wall was covered with brocade, one with grass paper, one was mixed blocks of granite, marble and something else, and the fourth was just big enough for the door, because a bathroom had been built into the room, and it was a real door, not sliding rice paper panels. There was also a wood column in one corner with a marble crown at the top of it. And we had real beds.

Our first evening there found us chasing a young maiko, which is a geisha in training, on her four-inch platform wooden thong shoes down an alley so I could get a good look at her. A young man with a video was pursuing her from the other end of the alley. She ducked into a doorway real fast. The reason I was so interested in her kimono is because I'd just finished reading The Memoir of a Geisha, which came out recently, and got fascinated with that whole scene. The book is written about the very part of the city we were in, called the Gion, when the geishas thronged in the teahouses the early part of this century. By the end of the evening, I'd seen quite a few and didn't chase them down any more. Besides, they've thoughtfully provided a very commercial but practical tourist show right there in a hall in that neighborhood. The parts of the program were a tea ceremony, flower arranging, koto music, a comedy play, a puppet play (all of these preceded by the adjective "famous"), and finally, finally a classical dance by a maiko.

Next day on our way to Kazuko's "favorite" temple (she had about five absolute favorites, same as with restaurants). There, right out in broad sunlight where I could photograph them from all angles, were two maiko teetering on their platform shoes, out sightseeing like everyone else.

This temple is called the stage temple because it has a huge verandah-like stage. It is for performance of special dances by the priests, but with no audience to watch them other than the trees in the woods on the surrounding mountain. You can see the stage from several places on a path across a ravine from it, but there's no provision for any gathering of human watchers.

Throngs of people come to this temple daily, some to toss a coin into a box, light incense, clap twice, then pray to the Buddha figure there, just like at all temples. I sat on a step where you take shoes off before going closer, and changed my film before we proceeded farther on up the mountain to subsidiary temples, where some elegant late-blooming cherry trees were resplendent. I missed Pongo when I put Peace Bear up in one for a closeup among the cherry blossoms. Hmm, where was Pongo? That rascally chimp had sat very quietly facing Buddha where I changed film, and I walked off and left him there. After I'd stewed about an hour, concluding I'd left him back in the hotel in the overnight bag, we came back down the mountain via the stage, and there he still sat, chatting away with Buddha while a lady stood right over him praying.

We visited quite a few temples, and their magnificent gardens, each unique. We took a bus across town to get to some of them. That night we watched a geisha dance on a lantern-lit boat out in the lake of a former imperial palace-cum-temple.

The second night we took a room across town in an enthusiastically self-proclaimed Bed and Breakfast in a private home that had us giggling helplessly at its pretensions after the sweet little old lady hostess bowed herself out of the stark room shes shown us into, kneeled and slid its rice paper panel door shut. But we extracted a good night's sleep out of it after all (first I had to filch an extra futon out of the cupboard), plus an adequate breakfast. This was quite an adventure, especially for Kazuko, for whom traveling in a public bus was also a first.

Unfortunately we couldn't pay for the room. We had both counted on using plastic for all our bigger purchases, like you can do everywhere in Tokyo. They hadn't heard of credit cards in Kyoto, so we had been using our ready cash. This had us giggling helplessly again when we assessed our pitiful combined cash resources, and even more so when we read the guest book entries of our predecessors in lined school workbooks piled on the TV: they were all junior high girls on their first visit to a big city. Exactly how we felt by then. The dear hostess was stunned in the morning when Kazuko told her she was leaving me as deposit while she went out in search of an ATM machine so we could pay cash.

I'm not even going to try to describe the Japanese foods I've been treated to, and have been indulging in totally indiscriminately, totally gourmandly. Kazukos college roommate brought a picnic of sweetmeats along when she joined us for the return trip out to Norita Airport. Groan. Couldnt leave them alone, though all four of us declared wed only be able to eat one, maybe two. Maybe that accounted for the fact that all the way across the Pacific back to the States, I was on some sort of high, and watched two movies wide-eyed, unable to get much needed sleep, then finally collapsed minutes before reaching Anchorage, Alaska. This was the first of my ten stops at homes of family and friends down the West Coast and across the country, decompressing before coming to earth for good at Sara, Tim and Katies house in green, sylvan Pennsylvania, which Id left after a whiteout snow storm eight months earlier.