Dear Family and Friends,
When I think of my recent trip to Kyushu, I keep hearing the words, “The Heart of the Story”. Indeed, Kyushu has been a very special place for well over a thousand years. And that energy can immediately be felt, albeit often subtly and almost unnoticed. Yet, it is there. And does indeed touch the very Heart of Being Itself.
Of course, some things there are just plain fun. Like tissue boxes made to look like Sakurajima volcano,
or lying under a warm volcanic sand pack.
The food was outstanding
and the landscapes stunning.
There was the small pottery village of Onda, where clay was prepared by long water-fed poles.
And Kengo Kuma’s Comico Art Museum in Yufuin was a breathtaking feast of architectural imagination.
And of course, there were the daily indulge of spas, and chatting with open and friendly locals.
But going deeper, there is an almost mystical energy the pervaded much of the land and its history.
As strange as it may seem, one of those places was the small town of Chiran in Kagoshima Prefecture. Nowadays it is famous for green tea. But it is also deeply connected to history, especially to war.
One section consisted of Samurai homes. Many Samurai were refined individuals who manifested the fine art of life, in all of its aspects. So, their homes included splendid borrowed-landscape gardens. That meant they incorporated the surrounding landscape as part of the garden design.
A deeply thought-provoking experience was the Chiran Peace Museum. The message of this memorial museum is extremely poignant today, especially considering the many wars the world is engaged in now. It is devoted to Kikkou (特攻), Kamikaze Pilots.
When I was a child, I was horrified by those “enemies” and how they waged war, (which tragically, has become all too commonplace today). But this museum presented the pilots deeply human side. The displays held photos of every young man who trained in Chiran. The exhibits carefully, almost reverently, explained who every one of them was. They gave precise details of their lives and training. Part of that included a final letter of appreciation written to someone they loved, most often their mother. And like Samurai before them, the wrote Haiku. These were preserved on national flags. The purpose of this profoundly moving Peace Museum was to provide a promise that human dignity is far greater and lasts longer than any war ever could.
Other significant places were the thousands of very old Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples all over Kyushu. They were surrounded by womb-like protective forests or perched on rocky cliffs jutting out to sea. Believers have made pilgrimages to those sites for over a thousand years, just as they do today.
One Shinto Shrine that affected me very profoundly was in Miyazaki Prefecture, in a small town called Takachiho. The shrine, Ama-No-Iwa-To, was next to a river and surrounded by hundreds of stone prayer towers, all made by pilgrims.
The altar was deep within a cave and its silence seemed boundless. Inside there was a circular mirror symbolizing the supreme Goddess of the Sun. She is Amaterasu Omikami, the Giver of Life. The hushed depth of the interior surely was meant to reflect our own Hearts, the most sacred part of ourselves.
Every evening, a sacred Kagura dance was held in another shrine. That performance had four parts. Three told the story of enticing Amaterasu Omikami out of Her cave in order to bring light into the world.
The fourth was people’s embrace of life when they were blessed with Amaterasu Omikami’s light and abundance.
Further north, the Oida Peninsula had a ring of Shrines and Temples that have been part of spiritual pilgrimages for over 1,300 years. The structures, carvings, and statues there, although fewer, could rival many in Kyoto or Nara.
Tying all these experiences together was the beauty of the people. They radiated purity and openness. They were gentle, helpful, and kind. They seemed to look out on the world with trust and an expectancy for good. They were a lovely way to touch the Heart of Kyushu’s very old and ongoing beautiful story.
Dear Family and Friends,
My friend Izumi is one of the most creative persons I know. So, being with her is always full of the unexpected. That means times are interesting when we are together.
Actually, Izumi and I are so busy that we don’t meet all that often. But this past week we met twice. Once was for her stray cats and once was for a home Buddhist ceremony.
Izumi loves feline creatures. She feeds any strays that come begging. And once a much-too-small kitten was born in the entranceway of her home. Izumi felt so sorry for the sickly newborn that she brought it, the mother, and the healthy sister inside to take care of them.
She called an NGO specializing in stray cats. They gave her large cages because Izumi’s own cat was jealous and ready to fight the new comers.
Eventually, the baby got so sick that Izumi contacted a vet specializing in stray cats. In his clinic, he has one large room designed especially for his charges. There are places for them to climb and to hide. They are well fed and left to roam as they will.
Izumi’s three cats were terrified when they were put in this clinic. They hid in corners, ran wildly around the room and rolled back their ears in fright if a person came too close. They also refused to eat. So, the doctor told Izumi it was her duty to come play with the cats. And even then, if they did not get better in a month, he would return them to her.
So, one evening, Izumi and I went to the clinic. Only one cat, not Izumi’s, was lively. The others sat quietly and watched in a rather bored fashion.
Only Izumi’s were afraid. The teeny kitten was tucked behind her mother and totally refused to move. The mother was in super alert mode, while her other daughter hovered on the other side of the room.
Izumi and I sang and coaxed. Not much progress in two hours, but we tried. As we were leaving, the doctor said he would give the baby kitten back to Izumi at the end of the week if she still refused to leave her mother’s side.
On Saturday Izumi had arranged for a special ceremony to be held in her uncle’s house. He had died several years before, with no heirs. After many discussions, the family decided to demolish the house and sell the land. But before that work began, Izumi insisted they hold a “House Closing Ceremony”.
It took a few days to prepare, plus to get the priest to agree to come. But eventually, the dates were set. Izumi thought everything was going well. But that morning, the doctor called and said he wanted her to come immediately and get the smallest kitty.
“But I can’t!”“You have to!”
In this hierarchal culture, you do not say no to a doctor. Thankfully, another friend was helping. She agreed to go for the rejected little one while Izumi and I continued preparing for the ceremony.
Later, during the service, everything was going smoothly as the priest chanted and we prayed.
But Izumi had forgotten to turn off her phone. It suddenly began to ring. Izumi grabbed it and left the ceremony. The call was from the NGO woman. She had a key to Izumi’s home and found that the stray had gotten out of its box and was nowhere to be found. Izumi was frantic, but returned, pretending to be calm, and finished the ceremony with us.
Izumi’s spouse, Yoshiki, will be out with his buddies one night after Christmas. Izumi did not want to be alone, so asked me to spend the night. She also asked me to cat sit while she and Yoshiki were away for the New Year. Being as fond of Izumi as I am, of course, I agreed to both requests.
I wonder what will occur when I am with Izumi’s cats on my own. Anything seems possible. But knowing her uncle’s blessed home is nearby makes it seem easier to accept whatever comes.
Dear Family and Friends,
Rumiko, my Japanese teacher, always has the most unusual ways of holding a class. Actually, our lessons have become day trips — when we only speak in Japanese, of course. She corrects my errors only if I ask a question. But usually she says being understood is more important than being perfect.
Rumiko knows I am interested in art. So, for this month’s lesson she really wanted me to meet her sister’s friend. She is not only an artist, but also the wife of a Buddhist priest. In addition, the husband is both a priest and an artist himself. They recently opened an art museum on their temple property. Rumiko wanted to see it herself, so arranged for our lesson to be there.
This artistic couple, Suzuki Hiromu and Naomi, live in Yamagata Prefecture. Their town, Higashine, is a rather long drive from Sendai. So, Rumiko asked her father do be our chauffeur. Of course, her sister Kumiko joined us.
Papa was much more elegant than I had expected. He appeared in a white suit and silver-gold shoes. His hair was newly dyed and permed. He wore white gloves when he drove. He was magnificent! And very laid back. And full of fun. He merits an entire letter of his own!
He was also an excellent driver, so the biggest hurdle of our trip was finding the temple. It was in an old neighborhood with unmarked streets (not even on the navigator). But we got finally there and were truly in for a treat.
The Suzukis met us and immediately ushered us into the museum. Actually, it used to be a kura, a large storage house used in times past. They moved this one to its present location and redesigned the interior completely. It was traditional on the outside and ultra-modern inside. Some walls were painted in soft colors but others were mirrors. High windows allowed for plenty of natural lighting.
The collection itself was very mixed. It went from very old calligraphy and Hina-Matsuri dolls
to recent pieces done by friends and themselves.
The Suzuki family has been priests for twenty generations. And many of them have been artists. Hiromu San’s great grandfather painted a stunning folding screen of the four seasons.
While Hiromu San himself did rather subdued pieces reminiscent of the Spanish artists he so admired and copied when he and Naomi San spent eighteen months in Europe for their honeymoon. They studied art at the Prado for half a year and traveled extensively the rest of that time.
The museum also had antique items. There was a collection of fine glass bottles,
several breathtaking dowry chests,
a rather large safe with three levels of doors to unlock before finally getting access to its contents.
There were Persian carpets and an old wooden staircase with drawers under each step.
And there was much more.
After admiring everything in the kura museum, we were ushered into the main house. It was a vast labyrinth of hallways and rooms, very easy to get lost in.
There were ikebana arrangements in every nook and on every tabletop. And the entire place was bulging with generations worth of books, antiques, and art pieces.
The work involved to keep the place so pristine and orderly was staggering.
Parts of this complex web of rooms and corridors were also very lived in. Strings of persimmons were hanging down a staircase, for example. Two bicycles were parked in one of the storerooms, along with two Buddha heads.
Naomi San had an art studio, where she painted daily. Hiromu San’s office was tucked into a small corner between two hallways and yet another staircase. The kitchen-dining area was small and warm. The rest of the house was freezing.
There were more than rooms, all of them filled with truly breathtaking pieces of art, antiques, and crafts handed down over centuries. The home itself was almost more a museum than the converted kura was.
The temple was another impressively adorned area, with items extending back well over 500 years. In fact, the entire complex of museum, temple, and home was a treasure trove of history, culture, and memories.
Late in the afternoon, we paused for coffee. But Papa announced he was going to a local spa for a good soak while we indulged in sweets and caffeine.
We expected him back on about ninety minutes, but that extended to two hours, even longer. At last he called to say he was completely lost. It was dark, the car navigator was useless, all the narrow streets looked the same. He asked local people for help, but that did not work. So, he finally called and all of us together (excluding me) gave him directions by phone.
He eventually arrived. We all said our farewells, bowed, and drove off into the night.
Naomi San wants to come to Sendai once a month for “English lessons”. But I get the feeling we will go to museums, take walks in parks, and simply enjoy being together and chatting. No matter what, I am looking forward to whatever unfolds.
Dear Family and Friends,
Kurumada Sensei turns 85 today.
She was the Head of the English Department at Shokei College when Izumi, Yoko, and I worked there. Actually, Yoko was my student before she joined Izumi as a secretary of the department. Together we were a real team.
Izumi often says those were, without a doubt, the best years of her entire life.
With Kurumada Sensei in charge, things were well run, but without an authoritarian bent. So, as long as the work got done, she left Izumi and Yoko alone. That meant there was a lot of time for laughter and just having fun.
I was pretty new to Japan then. So, my language skills and know-how in this culture were minimal. But Izumi and Yoko took good care of me, so we became great friends, and still are.
I left Shokei almost twenty years ago. The English Department closed down soon after. Izumi got sick and left last year. Yoko is still there, but in the main office. So, those delightful years of the three of us, guided by Kurumada Sensei, are long past. In fact, we seldom see each other anymore.
But a few months ago, something kept nudging me to contact Kurumada Sensei again. I have learned to heed that call. So, I visited her in her home. While there, I learned she would turn 85 this year. I mentioned that to Izumi and we thought a party for her would be fun. Yoko, of course, would be part of the celebration. And leave it to Izumi, she remembered a restaurant that another former Shokei student, then English Department secretary had with her husband.
The restaurant, Cloud 9, is small and simple. But the food is out of this world. Course after course of it. The tastes and colors blended subtly and perfectly. We were in awe with each presentation and bite. We joked that we must be on Cloud 10 with such a feast.
Usually Cloud 9 is open only in the evening, but for us, they opened for lunch. Even though the husband-chef was busy preparing our meal and those of the evening, he came out several times to chat with us.
He learned how to cook by going from place to place, pretty much all over Japan. He learned well. In addition to that, he loves experimenting, so he had very unique dishes. Some, like octopus and Miyagi beef, that took three days to prepare.
He (and his wife Yumiko) stirred tofu until it was like cream. They added a secret ingredient and poured it over strawberries. They served small pieces of fish that were to be eaten with a finely sliced, dried citrus fruit. And they made a dipping sauce with mild vinegar and dried plums.
Meals here often end with miso soup and rice. Even that was spectacular. The rice was bulging with vegetables and the soup included delicious mushrooms and fine seaweed. Kurumada Sensei was so thrilled by the day’s event, that she insisted on serving the rice to everyone.
We thought we were finished. But no. Out came the desserts. One Western, one Japanese. Again, tastes were unique and the chef’s secret.
Kurumada Sensei looked exhausted by the time we got her back home. But all of us felt very satisfied with the celebration. We also felt very happy to have added another delightful memory to the storehouse of those we had already created long ago.
Next year Yoko turns 50 and I become 75. I wonder if we will get together again. And could it possibly be as delicious and satisfying as Kurumada Sensei’s wonderful 85th?
Dear Family and Friends,
My friend Izumi is imaginative and very creative. Because of that, interesting things seem to come to her naturally. And because of who she is, she most often says yes to the many opportunities coming her way. Very kindly, she sometimes invites me to join her. Recently, she asked me to a very special Buddhist ceremony.
The paternal side Izumi’s family follows the Soto Sect of Buddhism. Although her father is buried near his country home, the family is now a member of a temple in Sendai. It is called Genkoan (玄光庵).
This year is very important for that temple. It turned 500 years old. That privilege must be honored. In addition, the head priest had recently died. So, his memorial service was part of the day’s events.
Priests and parishioners came from far and wide for this rare occasion. And Izumi, very thoughtfully, asked me to go with her.
Izumi expected us to be in the main hall. However, since so many attended, it was open only to priests and family members. The rest of us were in a separate building, where the service was broadcast live on large screens.
When we arrived, Izumi asked where I would like to sit. “Up front, of course. That way we can see better,” I replied. Later, Izumi whispered to me that as a Japanese she felt embarrassed to be in such a prominent place. But then a gentleman and his wife sat next to us, so she felt less conspicuous.
I was fascinated that most of the priests wore a robe of olive yellow over the usual black attire. I had never seen that before. So, I wondered if it were for this special day. But Izumi told me that it showed their rank of priesthood.
However, the current head priest of the temple wore different colors according to which part of the ceremony he was performing.
The ceremony had four parts. The first was the longest. The priests walked in a circle around the main hall as they chanted and tapped bowl chimes. They were creating sacred energy that would bless the temple and honor its 500-year-old existence. It also was setting the stage for its future.
The second part was very interesting. In a booming voice, the current priest called out the names of all the main priests from the temple’s inception until his recently deceased father. In so doing, he was thanking them and also asking for their protection and guidance for the next half century and beyond. He wore bright orange during that part of the service.
We had a short break and then the third part began. It was to be a “debate”, as Izumi called it. But actually, the visiting priests asked questions to the temple’s main priest, who was wearing a red orange robe under a black outer garment. Again, that was something I had never seen.
Izumi and I were expecting complex Buddhist doctrines to be discussed. Instead, the questioners went up one by one. And with their strong, deep priestly voices asked such things as: “What sort of tempura do you prefer?” And “Do you ever sing in karaoke? What songs are you good at singing?”
After booming forth his question and getting an amused reply, the priest would turn and powerfully chant something to the effect of “I received a helpful answer,” as he walked back to his place. Then the next one went forward with just as much authority to ask his question.
For the final part of the ceremony, we were given a choice. We could stay where we were or go to the main temple. Of course, Izumi and I chose to change places. That way we could experience the event live.
For this a priest had come all the way from Hyogo Prefecture. It had taken him five hours to get to Sendai, and he would return that evening. Curiously, this man had studied Rakugo. That is the art of comic storytelling. He told us all about his history, in his trained Rakugo voice.
It seems his family had been doctors for many generations. But his grandfather became a priest. His son and now his grandson followed him. But this man ventured far afield before settling into priesthood. That is, he was a Rakugo performer.
He learned his skill well. He told us stories with dramatic changes in voice and gesture. Most were hilarious tales of naughty children being scolded. But he would interweave Buddhist teachings in among those daily life realities. Everyone loved it. One old woman laughed so loudly, the priest stopped and asked if she were having a good time, of course in Rakugo style. And at the end, he shook her hand and bowed his thanks to her.
This final part of the day was a sort of initiation ceremony for the new main priest. What a warm welcome and encouragement for everyone connected to the temple.
Izumi and I left feeling very relaxed and blessed. It was a long, but very good day. We are already planning our next meeting. But for now, what we just experienced was very rewarding indeed.
Dear Family and Friends,
Wakako San is a friend who works in a skin care company. Her responsibilities include caring for her clients’ skin, of course, but also their general health. The company runs frequent seminars and has a lounge where members can enjoy spending time together.
Since it is such a relaxing place, very often people tend to open up and talk about their problems. Wakako San found that she was unable to help her clients as she would like. She also had problems of her own: an alcoholic father. Wakako San lived with her parents, so she and her mother experienced his abuse firsthand.
With these issues, Wakako San enrolled in an online Master’s program in psychology from an American university. Much of her studies and papers were in English. So, I often helped her. That allowed me to follow the course and also for Wakako San and me to become better friends.
One time when I stopped by the lounge, Wakako San seemed rather upset. With her head bowed low, she whispered to me that her mother had embarrassed her tremendously. Her father had been hospitalized for several months (not uncommon in Japan) and was scheduled to be discharged.
In the doctor’s office, Wakako San’s mother pleaded, “Please don’t send him home. He gets drunk every night and becomes very violent. I can’t stand it any longer. Please find another place for him to go!”
Wakako San then said, “I was totally astonished that my mother could be so selfish! And in front of the doctor, no less. Everyone will hear about this. It is shocking. I feel very ashamed. How can I hold my head up in the town where we live?”
I let Wakako San finish telling me her story. Then very calmly I said, “You know, Wakako San, as an American, I see things a bit differently. From my perspective, you should be very proud. Your mother has shown that she has gained enough self-respect that she does not have to put up with abuse anymore, even from her husband. She had enough courage to show her true feelings, no matter what the doctor or the neighbors would think. I see this as a huge psychological step forward. If she were my mother, I would be immensely proud of her.”
As I was talking, Wakako Sans slowly turned her head in my direction. The expression on her face was one of disbelief. I had felt the same when I was listening to her, but tried not to show it.
I also do not know what Wakako San was thinking. Maybe she was horrified that even after I had lived in Japan so long, my attitudes remained so “selfish” (from a Japanese perspective). Or maybe it started to dawn on her that what she had studied as a student of psychology could actually be applied in her own life.
I do not know what arranges were made for her father after he was discharged from the hospital. I do know he died a few months later. I also know her mother, despite being crippled with arthritis, goes to a senior center every day. She enjoys laughing and joking with the folks there, and says she has never been happier in her life.
I do not see Wakako San very much. We are both busy. But I hope our exchange helped her as much as it did me. It was such a beautiful reminder that even when cultures and ways of thinking are entirely different, there is still room for wonder, for appreciation, and of course, deep respect.
Dear Family and Friends,
Today was the last hike of the year. Originally, we were planning to go to a faraway place, promising a rough climb. But one of the members pointed out that we are all older now. He felt such an effort in one day would be a bit much. So, our leader, Ajiki San, settled on a mountain within Sendai City limits, but very much in the countryside. In fact, we passed many well-tended farms to get there.
It was a long weekend and the leaves would surely be stunning. So, we were not alone. The parking lot was almost full when we arrived early in the morning. But even so, once we were in the forest, we could easily immerse ourselves, as if alone, in Nature’s autumnal gifts.
Ajiki San, as usual, shared much information with whomever of us was nearby to listen. He explained about a certain plant that when dried could be made into a tea that soothed the stomach.
And later about a large leaf that was also useful. In the past, people wrapped miso in it to give a lovely taste and aroma to the paste.
He talked about camping in the woods. Once he felt the spirits of ninja creeping past his tent, even as he was soothed by the gentle flowing sound of a nearby stream.
“The forest is alive,” he said. “Alive with the distant past, what is now and to come. There is wisdom there. We have to learn and respect its stories.”
He also told us about Edo and Meiji Era customs. I asked him if he read a lot of books to get knowledge about the past. “Sometimes,” he replied. “But I prefer talking to old timers. They know things firsthand, so I feel they are more reliable. Plus, they recount customs that are so ordinary they never make it into books.”
A trip is not complete without at least one mishap. This time, fortunately, it was easily resolved. When we reached the peak of where we wanted to go, another hiker came running up to us. “Have any of you lost a phone and wallet?” We all started pawing through out belongings. Suddenly one of us said, “It’s me! I can’t find either!!”
“Not to worry. They will be waiting for you at the Information Counter down at the parking lot.”
And sure enough, that is where they were. All money and credit cards intact, phone smiling happily.
Somehow that reminded me of an incident I had a few days ago. My bike needed air in its tires. I walked it to the supermarket, where I could borrow a pump. The thing was well used and in rather bad shape. But even so, I endeavored to hold the ill-fitting nozzle on the tire with one hand, while trying to pump with the other. It was rather awkward, to say the least.
Suddenly I heard someone say, “Can I help you?” That was music to my ears.
The kind gentleman and I worked together to somehow get my bike tires filled with air. As I thanked him profusely, he bowed and said, in English, “My pleasure,” and then quickly departed.
It is so encouraging, and necessary — maybe especially today — to experience beauty in the world. The Beauty of Nature and the Beauty of the Human Heart.
Dear Family and Friends,
What is it like taking a day trip with three older Japanese women? Yesterday I found out. My friend Reiko San invited me to join her and her friends on a trip to Fukushima Prefecture. All three of them were in their late 70s, were rather short, and loved to talk. I towered over them, very much the “gaijin”, but not feeling out of place.
On the train, the three of them chattered like young school girls. They seemed to compete over who could tell the silliest stories. Their voices were loud and full of giggles. Normally, trains are very quiet. But no one seemed to mind four older women enjoying time together, away from their many serious responsibilities.
I mostly sat and listened, amused that they talked and laughed non-stop for well over two hours.
I also greatly appreciated the scenery.
The farms and mountains were stunning. Many places were still bringing in the rice harvest.
Others where bulging with apples more than ready for picking. Persimmon trees also dotted the landscape. Needless to say, Fukushima fruit is famous.
When Reiko San originally invited me, she said we would go to the Fukushima Prefectural Art Museum and then to a nearby local onsen. I was thrilled. I appreciate seeing art whenever I can. And a nice hot soak is always a welcomed treat.
But as soon as we were seated on one of the several trains we took, Reiko San announced that it would be one or the other. “No time for both. So, which is it?”
I was surprised and rather disappointed. So, I started asking questions. Maybe we could find a way to have both: art and a bath. The other two simply sat quietly, politely smiling. Not being used to anyone questioning decisions, Reiko San thought my questions were demands. They were not. It took a few dramatic exchanges before we agreed on a brief look at the museum grounds, maybe lunch there, and then on to the spa.
The museum visit was indeed brief. The lunch there nice, but more than we needed. However, going there was a good incentive to return later, probably on my own.
Then we headed to the spa town. We followed what our generation most often does; we did not rely on Google for information. Rather, we talked to locals. They were more than delighted to help us, and then to chat. They even went out of their way to make sure we were headed in the right direction.
The onsen village was lovely. Old buildings had been converted to hotels or shops.
There was a restored water tower.
And the former village head’s home had become a small park with a lone persimmon tree and free foot baths. Many locals came and spent a long, quiet time soaking their feet and reading, doing computer work, or sleeping.
We decided on a local bath. It was in a very old building with a beautiful ceiling.
The water was hot and delightfully soothing. But even there, we did not stay long. I have found that Japanese trips with friends are often a quick, superficial encounter with place, contrasted with unending, unrelated chatter among participants.
Another part of the ritual of a day trip is that everyone brings something for the others. I did not know that, so had nothing. But I surely will the next time.
Another ritual occurs on the way home. No matter how full you might be from lunch, you have a snack. I was simply not hungry, but the others ate and continued chatting and giggling as they rubbed their stomachs and said over and over again how full they were.
After that, the door was open to tell personal stories. One woman told about her grandson who became uncontrollable after his parents’ divorce when he and his father returned to live with her. He is a constant problem. Another has a mentally challenged son, now an adult, who lives with her. He has simple jobs, but his mom often fills in for him.
The other lady’s job was fascinating. She works with Japanese nationals who were born in China during WW II and forced to stay there when the war ended. Until recently, they lived their entire lives in China, often marrying locals. But in their 70s, they were repatriated. They came here not knowing the language or the culture, and some without family. And now they are in nursing homes. I asked why they returned to Japan. “Because they always wanted to,” was the reply. Such deep inner identity with place is something alien to my American pioneering spirit.
After dipping into their personal worlds, they had permission to fall asleep, which all of them did.
I got off the train before the others. I left them all snoring. I knew they would be all right since they were heading to the last stop. The conductor would get them off the train if they were still snoozing.
Unless it is hiking, I do not usually go on day trips with others. But I found those three ladies fun to be with.
They obviously enjoyed our day, too. We promised to meet again before the end of the year. If not for another day trip, surely for a Year End Party. We want to celebrate the happy times we shared in 2023. And we hope for good health and free time to do more together, and maybe with others, in the year(s) to come.
Dear Family and Friends,
Yesterday I went on another adventurous hike. I had thought I would write about it specifically. But this morning I realized the leader of the group, Ajiki San, would be equally as interesting. He is an older man, in his mid-70s, and is always upbeat, but not silly or superficial.
There were only seven of us going yesterday. So, we went in two cars. Private transportation would save us time since we were going to Yamagata, the neighboring prefecture. The group consisted of four men and three women. I was fortunate to go in Ajiki San’s car, and even more so to sit next to him. That way I could hear his stories. He loves to talk and has a wealth of information.
On the trip going we discussed mostly about what to expect on the hike. Ajiki San also answered my many questions about the farms and villages we were passing. I am always eager to learn more about this Tohoku region, and he is always delighted to share his knowledge.
The hike began with us going part way up in a “gondola”. After we had walked through a small forest to reach the real climb, one woman said her knees hurt and would not go any further.
“I’ll just stay here and wait,” she said. It was cold and windy with no place for her to shelter. So, one woman of the group, Otowa San, who had really been looking forward to the climb, opted to stay with her. Later, they would head back to the parking area where there were restaurants and shops.
“Anne, what will you do?” Otowa San asked. “I’m going with the guys,” I replied, maybe a bit selfishly. Years ago, when I first got to Japan and did not know about the rigors of hiking, I had done the same thing: opted out. But when the same woman, Otowa San, offered to stay with me, I flatly refused. Instead I spent the time drawing, luckily having taken along a sketch pad.
When that group returned, and we were heading to the cars, AJiki San said to me, “Why didn’t you give one of your drawings to Otowa San? She offered to stay with you.” I was surprised. Why should I do something like that, I wondered. “That is how we do things here in Tokoku”, he continued. I was still firmly locked in an individualistic mindset. Plus, I did not feel my work was good enough to even show anyone, so I did not give one to her.
Yesterday after waving good-bye to Otowa San and Suzuki San, the rest of us began to focus on getting up the mountain. As we ascended, the views became more gorgeous with a wide sweep of mountains and leaves just hinting change.
Zaoh Mountain is famous for “Snow Monsters” in winter. They are the hundreds of insect-killed trees that become covered in snow. The fierce winds blow the powder into truly monstrous shapes. For us, though, they were only dark frames waiting to be beaten by gales and clothed in their winter garments.
Ajiki San was an excellent leader, as usual. One man was older and more frail than the rest of us, so needed more attention. Ajiki San went beside him, even as he told us about plants and the many changes he has witnessed over time. He has been hiking Tohoku mountains for over 50 years and knows them well.
The other members of the group are all white-collar professionals. A few are retired university professors, one still works for the city government. Ajiki San, on the other hand, is a builder and carpenter, in addition to a driver for a day service center for oldsters. In a hierarchical society like Japan, it says a lot that everyone in the hiking group looks up to Ajiki San with great respect. And Ajiki San remains forever humble, towards all others and towards the vast powers of Nature.
At almost the top of the mountain, we had a brief lunch and then headed off right away, no time to rest after eating. But ill luck seemed to follow us. About half way down, the left leg of the oldest, rather frail, man gave way. Ajiki San was right there, easing him into a sitting position. We all waited until the intense cramping seemed to have ended.
But no sooner had we taken a few steps than the man collapsed again. This time his brain went blank. Ajiki San, as always, was very calm and attentive, knowing just what to do. Another man raced down the mountain to get his car and another called the ladies below to let them know the story.
Eventually, the man came to and we all were brave enough to continue the very precarious trek to where our friend would meet us. I could not get my mind off of the situation at hand. But to my amazement, all three of the men were telling unrelated stories and laughing loudly.
Later, I asked Ajiki San about that. “Life is full of problems. So, we do what we can to solve them and then focus on a larger picture. It is important to always balance things. That is how life works,” he replied.
Later, on the drive home, after all we had been through, Ajiki felt he could trust Suzuki San and me enough to talk about himself. He had grown up in this rural area. It was right after WWII, so people were poor. But they were determined to build their lives back up from scratch. Ajiki San got through high school and became a carpenter and builder, the work he still does today.
When he was 55, he was hospitalized for several months. “That gave me lots of time to think,” he said. “I realized I wanted to do more with my life. So, as soon as I got out, I enrolled in Tohoku Open University. I love it. I learn so much there. And it is affordable. That is where I met the people in this hiking group. I could never be in contact with people like that if I had not stepped out of what I had done all my life.”
(As an aside, I should add that Ajiki San’s writing is truly refined. His script looks like works of art. I feel as if I write with my foot when I compare what he produces to my scrawl.)
He told us about working as a driver for a day service center for oldsters. “I am there regularly and when they need me. Tomorrow is a national holiday, so I will be there. Other drivers have families. I would not want them to be away from their kids.”
Then he added, “You know who I truly admire doing this unseen job, being there whenever people need me? Garbage collectors. They are the base of society, are needed and used every day. What would our world be like without them?
“Now my life is well balanced. I work twice a day as a driver. I free-lance fixing houses. I do that when I want. I hike whenever I can. I have a hearing aid, so I am not cut off from life. My wife fusses that she does not like the Enka and Mood Music I play. So, I bought ear phones and we both are happy.
“Of course, life gives me problems. But I am a Tohoku man, so I shrug my shoulders and say, ‘Don’t mind’. I want harmony in situations, balance. That is what life is about. And I have, to at least try, to make it happen.”
A man I deeply admire, Ajiki San. Thank you. And I am looking forward to what unexpected surprises our next hike has to bring.
Dear Family and Friends,
Whatever you think about Japan is true — and so is its opposite. In one situation something can be completely accepted, yet in another looked up with distain. People can be very generous with their thoughts and behavior, or viciously petty and small. I try to focus on the aspect that uplifts, using that as a guide. I am not always successful. But the positive dynamics of human relations here can be very helpful for me.
A good example was on a hike I went on last week. There were eight of us. We are all older, but “genki” enough to happily climb mountains. That day we arrived at our meeting place in appropriate gear. That is, except for one of the ladies. She came wearing sneakers. As soon as she saw the rest of us, she said, “I have not gone hiking in a long time, so I forgot what shoes I should wear.”
In Japan, saving face is of prime importance. Face is what people use to define themselves and to regulate their behavior. “What others think of me is who I am.” That is why shame is far more important than guilt. If guilt in a Western sense is part of Japanese psyche at all.
Hatto San was part of our group, so there was a protective sense towards her. No one wanted her to lose face. So, immediately everyone started reassuring her. “Don’t worry. You will be fine. And besides, there are six strong men to help you up the mountain if you need it.”
What impressed me was that everyone lent her support. No one criticized her in any way. No one said, “You should not have worn those shoes” or “What a foolish thing to have done.” They simply assessed the situation and accepted it. “We will cope with what comes” was the unspoken agreement.
And sure enough, because of days of rain, the slope was not only very muddy, it was also covered in wet leaves.
Plus, in some places the trail was so steep, the only way up it was by yanking on well-placed ropes. Even those of us with hiking boots had a hard time. But Hatto San was in real trouble.
Again, no one complained or criticized her. Instead, the leader of the group put one climber in the front. Then he went to the back to be next to Hatto San. Without a word, another man joined him, allowing Hatto San to be sandwiched between them.
The other five of us went ahead at our own pace, periodically waiting for the struggling three to catch up. Sometimes we had to wait as much as fifteen or twenty minutes.
Again, not a word of complaint. Instead, people talked about the flowers or mushrooms along the trail,
about the beautiful mist, or briefly commenting on the incredible heat and humidity.
In the future, if they talk about today at all, they will probably laugh and said, “Wasn’t that a muddy hike? Poor Hatto San. It must have been so hard for her. But she got through it. We admire her fortitude.”
And indeed, somehow
, we all did make it safely back to the start of the trail. All of us were covered in mud. But we laughed about it. “We are heading to the Nikka Whisky factory from here. Won’t they be surprised to see such filthy people!”
They weren’t. They, too, just accepted it.
Hatto San immediately headed to the Ladies’ room to freshen up. The men headed to the bar.
And all of us agreed it was a perfect ending to a challenging, but very successful day.
Dear Family and Friends,
Several years ago, I took a course called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It was not given in Sendai, so once a week I would scoot down to Tokyo for the class. Each day was different and challenging. For example, once we had to copy an Old Master. The original was a painting and in color (but photocopied for us in black and white). We did ours with a pencil and an eraser.
I studied art in university, but that was in the 60s. At that time, the focus was on self-expression, not on technique. I essentially learned nothing of worth. I missed out on such crucial things as perspective, shading, and composition. So, the Old Master’s assignment was really good for me. Not only for learning about technique, but also about looking closely and discovering nuances and subtle details. I am still not good at those things. So, in that regard, I feel rather inadequate, in many areas of life, actually, not only in art.
One of those “other” areas is the Japanese language. I can get about in my daily life and when traveling. But to read and write, to use grammar properly, and to increase vocabulary are truly daunting for me. Even so, I have set myself the task of studying Kanji, a few cards at a time.
At first, it was rather easy. Characters like 山 for mountain, or 水 for water posed no problem. Their shape gave the message. Even though they both had two different pronunciations, I could cope.
As the cards progressed, however, I started getting ones like these: 疑for doubt and 築for construct or build. Obviously, those are more complex to write. Plus, they have more than two pronunciations. Those two are cards 850 and 851.
I have another 650 to go to finish the complete set. I have characters like these to look forward to: 鶴for the beloved bird, the crane, and驚for being surprised or frightened.
Even though all the cards are for elementary or early junior high students, I am beginning to feel rather overwhelmed. In fact, I have already forgotten many, if not most, of what I have studied. And there are so many more to come.
However, I am getting better at reading street signs, labels on food containers, and brief articles. So, I feel there is some progress. But even so, I often live in a fog.
Today when taking a break in my T’ai Chi class, a friend came to me excitedly. Did you see Okada San’s calligraphy in Sendai’s latest show? Here, have a look. Our friend had received a top grade for her piece, so my friend was bursting with delight for her.
Okada San’s characters are particularly bold and clear. So, I asked my friend what the writing meant. He looked rather startled and said, “I have no idea.” Just then Okada San herself appeared, so I asked her. She also looked surprised and said the same.
But then she added, “My task was to copy the text. I recognize a few characters. So, If I want to understand what was written, I use my imagination and make up a story.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Here were two well educated Japanese who could not read characters that were very clearly and confidently written. But then I smiled. Ah, if they have trouble, too, then maybe I should not feel so bad at how much I forget and how little I know.
But I am determined to keep on trying. I will learn what I can, and use my imagination to fill in the gaps. That is how I have been getting along in Japan for years. And now I know I have been on the right track all along.
Dear Family and Friends,
Recently a friend came to visit. Of course, I turned to Ito San and her fabulous travel agency to help plan our trip. Instead of heading to the Tohoku area, where I live, we decided on the south. Not as far as Kyushu, with its torrential rains this year. Rather we chose a cluster of three prefectures: Shimane, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima.
The trip itself was beautifully planned, as usual. Every detail was carefully thought out and perfectly coordinated. Yet, even though each place was a feast of discovery, there were a few that stood out more than others.
Those peak experiences did not include Izumo Taisha, the second most important Shinto Shrine in all Japan. Izumo Taisha is the home of the God Okuni-Nushi, second only to His female counterpart Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.
Neither did peak experiences include the special housing for the eight million gods and goddesses who make an annual visit to Izumo Taisha. They go there to worship and to rejuvenate before returning to their home shrines and all their incumbent duties.
World Heritage Ginzan silver mines were important. And Matsue City was charming with its castle, a National Treasure, well-kept Samurai houses, and marvelous boat tour around the castle moat. That unique trip entailed crouching very low, over and over again, to pass under a multitude of old bridges.
Adachi Art Museum with its expansive garden was noteworthy. It included the surrounding mountains and natural waterfall as part of its full landscape.
Towards the end of the trip were the gracious wooden walking bridge in Iwakuni,
Miyajima with its famous Torii gate, and Hiroshima’s Peace Park.
All of those places were captivating and educational. But they were not the peak experience that other places offered.
One of those special places was a teeny port village called Yu-No-Tsu Onsen （温泉津温泉）It has been a fishing and spa town for well over a 1,000 years. It has the run-down feel of many rural places in Japan. It has shabby houses and hunched-backed oldsters wandering the few streets there are.
But what made Yu-No-Tsu unique was the unexpected blend of old and new. Young people who want to get away from the pressures of city living have started buying property there. They have opened guesthouses, craft shops, and restaurants. They try to blend in with what is there, respecting the old timers, while tastefully bringing in a breath of hope.
My friend and I stayed in a guesthouse that felt like a person’s home. There were sliding doors made with handmade Japanese Washi paper, beautiful decorations on the walls, and a casual, at-home feel.
There was only one shower for everyone, but right down the street was a public bath with natural hot waters that have served the locals for thousands of years, literally.
We had to eat out, but only one of the town’s three restaurants was open. It overlooked the fishing harbor and sunset. The food was outstanding. We told the waitress we would be back for breakfast. And while we were eating it, she came racing in saying she had hurried there early to say good-bye to us and to thank us for coming. “Please come again. You are always welcome.”
Waiting for the rare train to arrive, by chance, a traditional dancer was there, taking a break from the relentless heat. We, and the town’s only taxi driver, were the only ones there. So, he was happy to entertain us with silly, but very fluid, dances.
I thought that would be our one and only peak experience. But another was soon to come.
I love Japanese pottery. And I knew that Hagi, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, was famous for it. So, that is where we headed next. Hagi has much of what Matsue offers: a castle and Samurai houses, plus historical sites connected to Japan’s fast and impressive industrialization. But pottery was our purpose.
So, in the tourist office I asked for information about professional pottery, not just stacks of almost-all-alike pieces often found in tourist shops. The ladies there finally realized how serious we were. So, they called three famous ateliers to make appointments for a visit.
And how breathtakingly wonderful they were!
The first stop was at the studio of Toubou Taikeian, at his Higuchi-gama, or kiln. The artist himself came out to greet us, while his wife explained in detail about how his pottery was made.
The next had stunningly beautiful pieces that evoked a very challenging creative process, combined with a silence so deep each piece felt reverential. This thirteenth-generation artist, Miwa Kyusetsu XIII, entered briefly, but his daughter-in-law graciously took us to see the kilns and then showed us a fascinating video of the master at work. My friend and I left, knowing we had been touched by something unspoken and very profound.
Our final stop was at the home of Saka-Kourai-Zae-Mon. We sat in the room for guests, which looked out on a Japanese garden. We were given tea as an assistant explained the works of the artist. The highlight, though, was the upstairs room. It had one pot for each of the many generations of family artists. The oldest was over 400 years old.
Obviously, this trip was a great success. And as always, I have started thinking of where to go next. When that materializes, I will share, of course.
Dear Family and Friends,
Most often I embrace my age. I am content watching my mind, emotions, and spiritual self evolving. But my body can be rather uncooperative at times, especially in my joints. To counter that, I wear thick soled shoes and carry less weight. Even so, when I travel I need a backpack. I take a small bag on wheels, of course. But touring during the day and obligatory gift-buying make a rucksack essential. But the ones I have are not comfortable at all. They pull on my shoulders and neck, causing problems for weeks after the trip is over.
Since I will be going on a trip soon, my travel agent suggested I get a pack made for mountain climbing, designed especially for women. Its weight is on the hips, not the shoulders. I tried hers on and it felt great. So, off I went to get one for myself.
The young man who helped me came from Yokohama. He spoke standard Japanese, which was easy to understand. In this region, Tohoku, a lot of people speak local dialects with mumbled pronunciation. So, much of the time I catch half of what is said, at most. But people are kind, so we usually communicate with no problem.
The sales person and I jabbered happily. He explained the intricacies of the backpacks, while I asked questions to learn more. Since the conversation was friendly, we found out that we lived close to each other and went to the same supermarket. He asked how long I had been in Japan. I returned by asking him how old he was. I like to surprise people that often I have been here longer than they have been alive.
When I found out his age, he asked mine. I told him to guess. He politely knocked many years off what he really thought. So, we both laughed again. But after that, he felt he should be more differential. After all, this is a hierarchal society. So, he started calling me Okaasan, which means Mother. That was the first time anyone called me that. I found it hilarious. We laughed a lot more.
As I was leaving, he gave me a huge paper bag to carry my new purchase. He also told me that my Japanese was fine. If he were my teacher, he would give me 70%. I laughed in humiliation. I am not proud of my Japanese.
When I got close to home, a neighbor called out to me, “What’ve you got there. Let me see.” She is an adorable old woman, well into her 90s. Her house is on a street corner, so she knows everyone that passes and all the news of the area. You don’t keep any secrets from her.
I showed her what was in the bag . “Well, that means you won’t be using your old one, doesn’t it? You can just give it to me.” I laughed yet again. Japanese are not usually so bold. But with age, they often become very direct and say exactly what is on their mind.
Tomorrow when I head down the hill, I will take my old backpack to give to my friend. I will get as much pleasure, if not more, watching her use it as I will with my own, very comfortable, new traveling companion.
Dear Family and Friends,
Rumiko Sensei always gives me very unique Japanese lessons. After a few formal classes in her home, she decided experiencing Japanese culture would be a lot more fun and meaningful for us both. This week was no exception.
Rumiko Sensei told me she wanted to see a newly made Buddha statue. It would only be on display for a few more days. So, this week’s Japanese lesson would be a day trip to see it. She said it was in a town near Sendai, called Tagajo.
Rumiko Sensei and I met at Sendai Station on time and raced to the farthest tracks to catch our train. On board as we were chatting, I suddenly realized we were probably on the wrong train.
Let me give some background.
Currently near Sendai there is an important exhibition of Buddha statues. This show is being held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. However, it had to be postponed until now because of the Corona pandemic.
The theme compares National Treasures and Important National Properties found in two specific places. One is Nara, which was one of the most highly cultured centers in Japan over 1000 years ago. The other is this local region, Tohoku. The sculptures and other works range from about 1,200 to 400 years old. Although very different in style and sensitivity, they are all truly masterpieces.
I went to the show twice. It was even more deeply impressive the second time. Also, between my two visits, a new Buddha statue had been added, a modern one. I had not realized it had been added, thinking I had forgotten it after taking in so many other beautiful pieces.
Since I had gone to this show by train, I knew we should go to a town called Kokufu Tagajo. I also knew the tracks to get there were the first two in the station. We had madly run to the farthest tracks, to catch the train going to the other Tagajo.
“Rumiko Sensei, I think we are on the wrong train.” “No! Not possible!”
But the more we talked, the more we realized we were indeed heading in the opposite direction.
“Not to worry. My in-laws live on a farm in this direction. Let me call and see if they would mind us stopping by.”
“Of course, you can come. But the house is a mess. And Grandfather and I are repotting marigolds to get to market today. Plus, I’ve never had a foreigner in my house before, so I am rather embarrassed. How will I talk to her?”
Grandma met us at the teeny train station and drove us to her immaculately clean home. It was surrounded by beautifully tended flower and vegetable gardens.
As soon as we entered the house, Rumiko Sensei went directly to the Buddha altar to thank the ancestors for their protection. I did the same. “We always do that. When we enter a home, we go right to the Butsudan to let the ancestors know we are here and to thank them for caring for us.”
Then we went to another room and had green tea, homemade pickles, sea cucumber, and sweets. After serving us, Grandma left to assist Grandpa. “We have a deadline, you know. Just make yourselves at home. Get more tea, eat more snacks. Enjoy yourselves.”
A short time afterwards she returned and told us to go into the garage, where everyone who had helped with the marigolds was partying. “Work is over. Time to play.”
They were having a ball, laughing and joking, eating snacks and drinking coffee.
“This is how we do things,” they explained. “We work together to get things done. Then we socialize. We take care of each other. In 2011 we came together and shared food and gave shelter where needed. We also worked as a unit to rebuild. We are one united village.”
When it was time for catch our train back to Sendai, the generous locals collected food from the table to give us. “You can’t go empty-handed. So, take this,” they said. “And be sure to come back in autumn. That is when it is time to harvest rice. We’d love for you to experience that. It is something you will never forget.”
As we boarded our train, we bowed our thanks. If I am lucky, in the autumn Rumiko Sensei will take me back. What a privilege that would be! Working with rice, the Asian staple, far, far older than the Buddha statues we had hoped to see today.
Dear Family and Friends,
Today was very unusual. My friend Izumi had asked me to an initiation ceremony for a new Buddhist priest. It was to take place far from Sendai, in the countryside. It was a very rare event, so we both felt very honored to be able to attend.
I had always understood that becoming a Buddhist priest in Japan was hereditary. The position went from father to son, often for several generations. Each family was in charge of a particular temple. They usually lived next door, which allowed the atmosphere of each place to be unique, some even feeling rather homey.
That, I learned, is often the case, but not always. It seems many men, unconnected to a temple, decide to join the priesthood. They do it as a kind of supplement to their fulltime work. These men probably will never have their own temple, but will assist in places as needed.
And that was the case with the man being initiated today. Even though his wife came from a long line of Buddhist priests, he, Suzuki Yoshiki San, had never been particularly involved with Buddhism. In fact, he had been raised a Christian.
His life had taken him from job to job, until in his late fifties, he became interested in numerology and how it connected to birthdays, places, and names. He currently carves personal name seals, hanko はんこ. He uses his knowledge of numbers and their influence to carve hanko in such a way that the shape and number of strokes will be harmonious for each individual.
HIs wife has similar interests. Realizing her spouse’s sensitivity to others and the world around him, she kept urging him to become a priest. Finally, in his sixties, he agreed.
I had understood that the kind of ceremony we were to attended today was because Suzuki San had completed his training and was ready to embark on service in the community. But again, I was mistaken.
It turned out this ceremony was held before Suzuki San had even started training. It was truly an initiation, not a graduation. So, at each stage as the ritual unfolded, a priest whispered to Suzuki what he should do. There were six priests in all. One chanted the prayers, one gave instructions to us witnessing the event, one rang a gong, one instructed Suzuki San step-by-step, and all of them prayed bowing their heads to the floor.
Preparing the ritual
There were parts of the ritual that I was able to understand clearly. For example, at one point, the priest conducting the prayers pretended to shave a bit of hair off Suzuki San’s head. “Are you ready to become a priest?” He asked three times. “Yes, I am.” “Yes, I am.” “Yes, I am.” And then the top part of his head was actually shaved.
Then a whisk was used to sprinkle water on Suzuki San as well as on the priest conducting the prayers. That, obviously, was for washing clean, for purifying the heart.
Despite saying “Yes” three times, Suzuki San seemed unsure and rather worried throughout. Izumi said she thought he was nervous with so many people there. His wife, on the other hand, was very much at home. She glided through the entire afternoon with great poise and happiness.
I trust with time Suzuki San will become confident in his new role. And then he will be able to serve the community by going from place to place as needed, just as the six priests did for him today.
Formal photo after the ceremony
Dear Family and Friends,
I had not been to America in almost four years. But I went last month. I wanted to clear out a storage unit I had had for over thirty years. It was time to get things back into circulation. At this stage, life is no longer about holding on, but rather about putting into circulation and letting go.
Corona brought many changes worldwide. But abruptly returning to America was like being hit with amazement. There was so much I had forgotten, or that had changed significantly.
There were two things that struck me first. America’s beauty and sizes. I had not been there in spring for almost forty, maybe fifty, years. So, I delighted in the gracious splendor of the season. The entire east coast seemed green and bedecked with flowering trees, especially cherry. It touched me deeply to see a necklace of pink blossoms extending from New England to Maryland (and probably much further). I smiled thinking of my Japanese friends who often ask if America has Sakura. Yes, it does. And not only the famous ones in DC (which Japan gave over a hundred years ago). They now seem to almost cover the country.
America thinks big. The size of trucks alone was rather daunting. They were huge and hundreds of them zoomed along highways, right next to small passenger vehicles. The roads themselves were enormous, some six lanes in one direction. And everyone seemed in a hurry.
People, too, have expanded in size. All emphasized by the lycra clothing popular today. What surprised me more than the sizes themselves, however, was the matter-of-fact acceptance that this change was something completely normal. And exposing it was, too. Japanese have been getting fatter, too. But compared to many Americans, they look like stick figures.
I reveled in the variety of so much in America. Variety of races, of cultures, of languages, of food. The blending of people and customs was thrilling. Walking down a street in New York or even strolling on the green in a small town in Maryland was like taking a trip around the world.
The food was splendid. Sizes and portions are much larger, of course. Milk products in particular stuck me, probably because they are richer and fuller than what I buy in Japan. Cottage cheese was a daily delight. So were ice cream and yogurt. Cheese was sprinkled or melted on many dishes. In fact, it was hard to have a meal without it.
There were many ethnic restaurants, even in very small towns. Mexican, Pakistani, and Lebanese were favorites. But there were plenty of Italian and Spanish, and of course, Indian, Vietnamese and Soul. To name a few.
Another thing that struck me about Americans was their self-confidence. Their basic energy seemed to be an outward thrust, a positive attitude, a sense of being able to do anything. And people spoke their ideas loudly, even in public places. It was very common to hear friends discussing relationship problems or emotional issues as they walked down a street. Everything seemed so overt, especially in comparison to the Japanese way of keeping things private and not revealing one’s innermost self.
One more small, but significant, observation concerned toddlers in daycare. In New York there were many nannies pushing strollers. Sometimes there were two, but more often three, four, even five wee ones in one stroller. Each child had an individual seat and was quite separate from the others. In Japan, however, very small children are moved about in what looks like an open box on wheels. All the kids are placed together in one unified space. This allows them to know they are always part of a group. So, something as simple as how children are transported can subtly instill a sense of personal identity, whether individualistic or collective.
I was fascinated watching myself in America. I have not lived there for forty-five years, but even so, I could feel my American roots rising to the surface when I was there. Simple things, like standing with my hands in my back pockets or sitting with one ankle perched on the opposite knee. The way I chatted with people or flowed along in conversations were different from how I do it in Japan. It felt very familiar, as if I were in my younger years and home.
It was a good trip, excellent, in fact. I feel a deep love and appreciation for the country of my birth, my upbringing, my family and friends. America has its problems, yes. But there is so much hope there, too. Of course, with all the vicissitudes happening everywhere now, I wonder what America’s – and the world’s — next chapter will be.
Dear Family and Friends,
Imai Sensei is someone I have admired for years. He and I used to work in the same university. But his life’s work took him far beyond being a teacher. He is a Baptist preacher and got the foundation for how to be a Christian from a stint in Germany. There he learned that practicing religion means working for the greater good of the community. That is why he started Yomawari Group when he returned to Sendai.
Yomawari is an NGO that helps homeless people. It started mostly serving meals, plus handing out clothing and daily necessities. Over the years it has expanded to include showers, help with finding odd jobs or work and housing. Fortunately for everyone, the building boom in Sendai has left many old, but perfectly good, buildings vacant. So, Imai Sensei negotiated with city officials to use them as homes for the people he serves.
I used to go relatively often to prepare and serve meals with Yomawari. But I had not volunteered for many years. However, the other day a friend invited me back, so I decided to go and see what I could do.
As usual, the atmosphere was very welcoming. Long-time volunteers greeted the homeless with kindness and respect, and me with great warmth. They knew everyone by name and made small talk with each person there. The atmosphere was relaxed and happy. It was nice being back.
It was a cold day. Before things started, volunteers hovered on one side, while the unsheltered slowly drifted in. They sat in a large circle around the park, waiting for the signal to head to the table.
As we were setting up, however, three young girls came bounding over and said, “We want to help.” We volunteers were both surprised and delighted.
Of course, there were many questions. Names. Ages. Schools. (All were in 4th grade of elementary school).
Two younger boys, not wanting to be left out, dashed over to see what was going on. One was in first grade.
Being kids, they could not hold still, so there was a lot of jumping and hopping, ceaseless motion. But they did listen attentively.
And they were great volunteers, working smoothly beside the adults.
I was lucky to work with a fourth-grade girl and the first-grade boy, Mika and Kazuki. They were not shy at all, as most Japanese kids are. They asked questions and gave long answers to mine. They had to explain some vocabulary to me, and did so completely naturally. Most Japanese get very embarrassed and shy when I ask a question. They simply shut down. But these kids were marvelously open and curious. And willing to share ideas and help out. Mika’s, Kazuki’s, and my job was to offer “lucky bags” with a few daily necessities inside. They did their work efficiently and very proudly.
The guests could come back as often as they liked. Many came for second, even third, helpings. But gradually the crowd dispersed, the volunteers cleared up, and the kids, still hopping and dancing with their boundless energy, decided it was time to go, too, so off they ran. We tossed the bit of leftover rice for the pigeons to enjoy, which they did, of course.
“Thank you. See you next time,” we said as we waved good-bye. It was a very good “soup run”. I am sure I will be back, not waiting so long the next time.
Dear Family and Friends,
My Japanese lessons are not lessons in the conventional sense at all. My teacher thinks that experiencing Japanese culture, while chatting only in Japanese, is one of the best ways to learn the complex intricacies of the Japanese psyche. That, she feels, is far more important than knowing the spoken or written language well. So, the “Language of the Heart” is where our lessons take place. And that often entails a day trip.
Rumiko Sensei and I both have very busy schedules, so do not meet often. But when we do, it is always a joyous time of sharing and discovery. Yesterday, for example, she decided I should see an equestrian center. “I know you will love the horses,” she said. “And besides, it is near the sea, which is so expansive and beautiful.” I laughed and agreed, of course.
The highway to get there was built on a ridge. One side had very flat open spaces, paddies soon to be flooded and planted. The other had been completely devastated by the March 11, 2011 tsunami. Only a few scraggily old pines were still standing. But beneath them was a thick forest of new trees. They had been planted by OISCA after the devastation. It was reassuring to see they were doing well.
The first thing Rumiko Sensei and I did was to buy a cup of snacks for the horses. She told me they used to get carrots, but now it was grasses.
There were two long stables with rows of absolutely gorgeous animals. Their colors ranged from white to jet black, with many shades of grays and browns between. Each had its own stall and was patiently standing, curious when someone came close. Their noses and mouths wiggled delightfully as they ate the treat offered them.
The care given to these magnificent creatures was very impressive. They went on walks, were groomed, and fed on a regular basis.
When we were there, one mare was having his mane trimmed. And a dentist had just attended to one of his troublesome teeth. The man was not local, but rather had come from a prefecture close to Tokyo, several hours away.
The love felt for these animals was palpable. And the horses responded with gentleness and trust. It was very reassuring and soothing to simply be in their presence.
We spent a long time looking, admiring, and asking questions. Then Rumiko Sensei and I went into the office area. There was a display about the infamous 2011 tsunami. There were pictures and explanations about what had happened at the equestrian center at that time.
Naturally, the horses had been terrified. They broke loose and tried to escape. They went in all directions in the immediate area. Unfortunately, more than twelve died, but over thirty were found alive. They were all very agitated until given water and food. Then they gradually calmed down.
I was very touched by the number of places in Japan, and even as far as Australia, that took in some of these traumatized horses. Later, after Miyagi had stabilized, many of them were returned. Some were ones we had admired a few minutes before.
Before we left, we went to a memorial for the horses lost in the tsunami. It was a simple, very beautiful black stone with a few words carved into it. A plate of carrots and a bunch of flowers had been placed before it.
Rumiko Sensei and I couched down and bowed our heads. “Thank you, Lovely Creatures, for having shared your life with us on earth. And may you be well wherever you are now.”
We left, both feeling very calm and refreshed. The gentle, almost Zen-like energy of the horses was a very profound, long-lasting experience indeed.
Dear Family and Friends,
My friend Izumi has a way of finding new places and things. So, it is always a delight of discovery when I am with her. Even in the most mundane places, she finds something of interest.
Take our ride home yesterday, for example. She takes my English class, which is a short ride out of Sendai. I go there by train, which toots its way through soothing farmland with paddies and distant mountains. But Izumi drives me home after class. The route by road is entirely different. It is overly built up and an assault of noise and ugliness on all sides.
I treasure my rare times with Izumi, so go with her, but always miss the beauty the train ride allows.
Yesterday, though, Izumi said she had seen a sign for a shop that she wanted to visit. Would I mind? Everything there was made of soy. That included anything from ice cream to pizzas.
That in itself was interesting. But what struck me more was that no one was there. It was complete self-service.
Izumi is very skilled with maneuvering the digital kingdom. So, she knew exactly what to do. After we admired everything,
she selected four pizzas, a few rolls, and a cream cake (all out of soy). She then calculated the price,
and slid the correct amount into a slot in the wall.
That was it.
I was completely taken aback. Anyone could have stolen everything there. But Izumi said, “That happens sometime with old people, but there are security cameras, so no problem.”
That incident made me think of a recent “Backstory” I saw on NHK. It was about the labor shortages Japan is facing. As in China and South Korea, Japan has an age-heavy problem with the number of oldsters on pensions far outweighing the young. That means, among other things, a labor shortage.
But people here adapt. In some places, farmers have started using robots to pick fruit. And people who would normally retire are working longer. It is not unusual to see older men working at construction sites or collecting rubbish, and women in their 70s as receptionists or shop keepers.
Also because of this population dilemma, Japan has reluctantly been opening its borders to foreign workers. Most are from Southeast Asia. My Japanese teacher teaches some of them in a very intensive month-long course. Then they head off to jobs, mostly in health care facilities for the aged or factories. They are very needed and appreciated. However, as the NHK program pointed out, with the weak yen and long working hours, many of them realize being in Japan was not what they had expected. Some are returning home and suggesting to others not to come.
Likewise, interestingly, many young Japanese are fleeing this country to find work overseas. I have a former student who worked in Japanese companies for almost fifteen years, but is now in Germany. “I could never work in Japan again,” she told me. “Here everyone goes home at 5 pm and I have my weekends free. In Japan I stayed each day until the job was finished, so was often in the office past midnight.”
The NHK program showed that many young Japanese are now working in Australia. They love the lifestyle there and some have applied for permanent residency. One woman who was a nurse said that in Australia she earned in one week what had taken her a month to earn in Japan.
So, times are definitely changing. As the world seeks ways to adapt, my greatest hope is that we do not lose the importance of actual connections, whether they be between humans or us and our fragile, yet still very beautiful natural world.
Dear Family and Friends,
Ever since I got to Sendai, I have been fascinated by old houses scattered around the city and countryside. At first, most were still lived in and held a charm and wonder that only old things have. In fact, my friend Shuhei told me that in Japan well used items are highly revered. They are considered almost sacred for the essence and history they bear.
Over the years, especially since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, much of Sendai has been, and still is being, rebuilt. More and more new homes and developments are devouring the city. I find most are soul-less and depressing without gardens or even a tree.
In contrast, though, many old places remain. A large number of them are empty and falling to ruin. Others are appear lived in, as if the owner will soon return from work. And maybe they will. Sometimes it is hard to tell if a shack is still a home or once was.
(Actually, a precious 92 year old lady lives in this home. She has been there since she got married about 70 years ago. She is an anchor of the neighborhood. Everyone knows and loves her.)
Inhabited or not, all of these places emit a rather haunting feeling, a mystery, a long history of stories, both happy and sad.
I love exploring my neighborhood and beyond. It has many narrow, winding streets, which surely began long ago as footpaths. Of course, on these excursions of discovery, I take a camera and delight in adding to my collection of memories.
It seems I am not the only one who enjoys this pastime. I recently learned of a group of photographers who have been recording old buildings in this area for years. They are currently holding an exhibition called Sendai Collection.
And what a collection it is! Photo after teeny photo of black and white shots from 2000 to 2022. These are punctuated with ones a bit larger for variety and orientation. The show covers several rooms. At first the sheer number seemed overwhelming. But as I started looking closely at each picture, I found myself completely absorbed. Each building, each home contained a deep spirit that spoke profoundly and nostalgically. Who had lived there? What quiet wisdom does that building have to share?
To my surprise, I found several images of places I myself had photographed, some very close to my home. Some looked the same, others more weatherworn, yet still, more or less, intact. The literally thousands of photos in the show were a treasure trove, requiring many visits to appreciate fully.
What I appreciated just as much as the pictures were the other visitors. Many were huddled with friends around a photo, examining and discussing everything in great detail. Surely, they were the living history that those buildings now reflect.
Of course, the relentless rebuilding in Sendai will continue to march forward. And the Sendai Collection photographers will continue recording that evolution. For them, perhaps, part of their work involves both reminiscence and a looking ahead. But for me, it is more an ongoing discovery into the profound essence of this culture, with its stories, mysteries, and wonderment that never cease to captivate me to the core of my being.