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.
Dear Family and Friends,
One of my favorite persons in Sendai is Ito San, my travel agent. She has her own company now, but before that she was a tour guide. She held that job for almost twenty years. So, she knows every nook and cranny of this country. And she has an amazing memory of what she has seen and done. Plus, she knows her clients well and designs tours to suit their preferences. In other words, she is wonderful!
For years Ito San urged me to visit Mashiko Town. “It is famous for pottery. You will love it.” She always said, adding, “There is a long street lined with pottery shops. So, I know it will interest you.”
From her description, I envisioned shops, all pretty much alike, all selling the same sorts of things. I am not interested in that kind of experience while traveling, so have always politely opted out. However, when planning a recent trip for a friend and me, she slipped in Mashiko as part of the tour. I did not have the energy to resist, so went along with it.
I am glad I did.
What a euphoric surprise Mashiko was! Yes, there is a major road cutting through it, but otherwise, it is a charming town with traditional buildings, several with thatched roofs.
Everywhere the long history of pottery-making is promoted. There are posters with old photos throughout the town.
And each shop features unique, handmade pieces that can only be considered pure art. Shop after shop is a feast of artistic wonder.
Pottery masterpieces are everywhere: in restaurants, hotels, the train station, the museum, and even public toilets. It was magical to walk around the town, discovering one gorgeous item after another.
Mashiko’s pottery Master was Hamada Shoji (1894-1978). He was designated a Living National Treasure. Even today, his influence permeates every inch of Mashiko and far beyond. He is world renown.
In addition to pottery, there is one studio specializing in indigo dyeing. Everything there is natural. The building itself is traditional and all the dyes are plant-based. From beginning to end the process is done by hand. The results are gorgeous.
Our time in Mashiko was too short. There are temples and shrines still to visit. And the countryside is filled with fields and farms, so beautiful any time of the year.
When I returned to Sendai, of course, I visited Ito San. I humbly thanked her for planning a trip that included Mashiko. She smiled and said, “See, I told you!”
She knows me well. So, the next time she suggests a place, I am sure to agree right away. I know I will not be disappointed.
January 3, 2023
Dear Family and Friends,
Of course, everywhere people celebrate the New Year. But in Japan there seems to be an added dimension to honor that special occasion. お正月 (Oshogatsu) is deeply spiritual and marked by subtle, but highly significant rituals.
I was fortunate to experience this New Year with a visiting friend. Last year Izumi and I were together at her home. So, she took charge of what we did. But this time it was up to me to meaningfully present Japanese customs and traditions.
One very important part of it is New Year’s ritual foodおせち料理 (O-sechi). This beautifully arranged feast is first an offering to the Gods. Afterwards, it is for the family to enjoy with shared time together. There is always plenty, with enough for leftovers. Traditionally, that was a way to thank the women of the house by giving them a few days’ break from their never-ending household tasks.
And what a feast it is! O-sechi containers come in tiers, each with specific choices of fish, meats, cooked vegetables, seaweed, and sweets. Of course, each layer is both breathtakingly beautiful and highly symbolic.
O-sechi boxes are first opened on New Year’s Day. But midnight on the 31st is also highly significant. People who can go to Shinto Shrines to pray. They also buy charms so as to learn the direction of their fortunes for the year.
My friend and I headed out a bit early to see what was happening. We passed a lovely small shrine that was well lit up. Whether worshippers came or not did not matter. Honoring the Kami (God/desses) is always crucial, especially at times when Heaven is a bit more accessible, such as now, the New Year.
We finally arrived at Aoba Jingu, which is an important shrine in Sendai. To my surprise, it was almost dark and besides us, no one was there. Even so, we stood before the altar with its huge round Shinto mirror, bowed, clapped, prayed, and bowed again.
We were not ready to leave. Fortunately, we found a bench, so sat and immersed ourselves in the profound stillness around us. Gradually a few people arrived. Then a few more. And a few more, until there was a steady stream of worshippers waiting patiently for their turn to approach the altar and make their New Year salutations.
Aoba Shrine is in a very old area that has an arc of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples lining the street. At exactly 23:30, a nearby temple sounded its gong. The deep vibrations reverberated across the entire neighborhood. The echoing sound was haunting and touched deeply into the core of being.
Soon after, another gong sounded and yet another. Each was from a different temple. Each had its own particular vibration, its own unique energy and message. Together they harmonized to promise a unified whole.
Even so, the sounds were uneven and irregular. Some were close and loud, others distant and faint. The darkness, punctuated by a few lights, plus the reverberating sound of the gongs, gave a profoundly sacred texture to the night. Indeed, the entire atmosphere was filled with deep mystery and unspeakable awe.
For me, that experience was probably the most spiritually significant. But honoring the New Year was far from over. The following day and the day after, people continued to flock to shrines. It is important to do so in order to let go of the past and to start the New Year with purity and grace.
Hopefully, those ideals and the generosity of spirit they promise will reverberate throughout the entire world and become a reality that everyone everywhere has the courage and maturity to share.
Dear Family and Friends,
Today in my advanced English class we talked about “the Japanese Mind” and how it differed from Western ways of thinking. Of course, we touched up “collective and individualistic cultures” and their differing mindsets. That led to natural disasters and their influence on the Japanese psyche. In times of emergency, the Japanese know they have to act collectively, literally to survive. And of course, being an island nation with a history of years of enforced isolation has also contributed to what could be considered a very unique mindset.
I have lived many years in Japan and have made great efforts to understand the Japanese way of thinking. Even now, I continually try and fit in to this society. However, I realize over and over again that the structure of my psyche will always be American. Let me give you a few examples.
I take T’ai Chi lessons in a program with about seven teachers. Each teacher specializes in one form and we students choose which group we would like join. I did one form for a year. But the teacher and I thought so differently that it was better for me to go elsewhere when the year was up.
Our differences came mostly because I raised my hand and boldly asked questions. The teacher was not used to that. She felt I was confronting her. I was not. I respected her knowledge, and therefore, asked her advice. The other students, without the teacher knowing, told me they appreciated my questions because they dared not ask themselves. For them, if they asked questions, they felt they would have stood out too much. That would have embarrassed them. It may have also brought shame to the teacher for not instructing in a way that made questions unnecessary. The teacher could never come to see the situation from my perspective. So, I felt it was better to change groups.
My next teacher was a university professor, so he was fine with my questions. But in this group, too, I stood out as very non-Japanese, but in another way. I had joined after the other members had worked on a particular form for a year. I came in a complete beginner. There were all levels of proficiency. So, the good students were in the front and the struggling ones in the back. I, of course, was in the very back row.
However, in that humble position I could not see the proper way to do a form. I really wanted to learn. So, I simply moved forward to be next to one of the advanced students. At first, the teacher looked rather startled. But he quickly figured out what I was doing. So, after that, every week he assigned me to the front. I appreciated his understanding and flexibility very much.
There is one thing that amazes me, though. And it might be considered another example of “the Japanese Mind”. The stumbling students in the back, despite being surrounded by only ill-performers, eventually learned how to do the form properly. They seemed to intuit the right way. I, on the other hand, despite the special treatment I am getting, am still struggling with basics.
Later this same teacher could not come to class. He left instructions what we were to do. We realized what he assigned would never fill the two-hour lesson. So, everyone seemed to panic. As they buzzed and fretted, I simply said, “We are adults. We can choose for ourselves. And Wako San is the best in our group, so maybe she can lead us today.”
As soon as I said that, everyone stopped talking and jumped back, staring at me as if I were some sort of monster. Some even had their mouths open in utter surprise. I just shrugged, backed off , and let them continue deliberating.
The following week, the teacher was again absent. Everyone turned to me and said, “What are we going to do today, Anne.” I was startled and said it depended on what everyone wanted. Again, they were surprised by my response. But eventually one man took over and since then he has been our leader. Everyone seems relieved that way.
But one unexpected addition to this arrangement is that now the more advanced students deliberately help those of us who are struggling. Instead of lining up by ability, we are mixed together. People ask questions and whoever can is delighted to assist. So, it really is a team effort. And that makes me feel happiest of all.
Dear Family and Friends,
Andrew is retired now, so is free to do things he has always wanted to do. One is to study the Japanese language. His interest in Japan began when he and Janet lived in a rural area of Nagano Prefecture, teaching English, of course.
His stories from there are very interesting. Probably my favorite was of an older woman with her friend on a local train. When they arrived at her friend’s stop, they both went to the door to say good-bye. Both bowed deeply. Even after the train pulled away, the older lady kept bowing for at least another stop. Obviously, she was bowing her profound gratitude, rather than a good-bye.
Another was when their contract ended. Their train left early in the morning, but even so, the station was filled with all their young students. Each had a present to offer their two beloved teachers. Janet and Andrew’s bags were full, but they graciously accepted the gifts. Everyone waved, not bowing, good-bye as the train pulled out of the station.
Andrew has continued plugging away at Japanese for many years since then. As a retired language teacher, he knows that being here, taking a formal course, would be the best way to learn. So, he came to Japan, hopefully for six months.
And last week, he kindly came to see me. That provided good motivation for me to get out and visit some interesting places.
The first was for a massage.
Sushi that night for dinner.
There is a Basho museum up another hill. So, we headed there, too. It was small, but the calligraphy pieces were breathtaking in their subtlety of color and graciousness of brush strokes.
And of course, more food. Yamadera has excellent cuisine, so we indulged. Andrew told me it was maybe one of the best meals he had ever had in Japan.
Dear Family and Friends,
A friend told me about a Shinto festival at Sendai’s Osaki-Hachiman-Jingu Shrine today. I had not been to one of their events in a long time, so decided to go. My friend’s son would be there helping. That, of course, added to my eagerness to attend.
As soon as my friend’s son could crawl and make his wishes known, he demanded that his mom take him to the Shrine so he could spend time with the priests. They loved him, of course, and let him crawl around, exploring as he wished. He has been going there ever since, and now at age eleven is happy to serve when and now he can.
I was not sure what to expect today. Osaki-Hachiman-Jingu has a variety of festivals throughout the year. For example, there a special day to honor and protect firemen. And another that entails competitions on horseback. Riders gallop at full speed along a short, narrow pathway, shooting arrows at targets set along the course. Onlookers are alarmingly nearby. And of course, there is Dontosai, held in the dead of winter. For that, male participants wear only loincloths (woman a bit more), and walk through the city ringing bells as they head to the Shrine. There New Year decorations are burned in huge bonfires.
So, what should I expect today?
Several blocks away from Osaki-Hachiman-Jingu, I could already hear the continuous whining drone of flutes and the slow, steady beat of drums. I wandered past festival food stalls
In the first one I watched, the dancers were not professional. Rather they were ordinary men connected to the Shrine.
I stayed for two dances and then slowly wandered around the grounds. Several small side Shrines have recently been constructed.
If I were younger, I probably would have stayed to the very end of the dances. But I knew I had to get home before becoming too tired. And I had an hour to walk home. The shrill drone of the flutes, and even throbbing of the drums followed me until I could no longer hear them. Of course, I knew the dances were continuing without me.
Although leaving before the end was something new for me, I rather liked it. I found it symbolic of my aging. And an important reality that I am working to come to terms with, and to accept with grace.
Leaving while the performances were continuing also allowed my day to come full cycle. It began it with Takemitsu Toru’s piece called “from me flows what you call time”. That is surely a prayer set to music and very much related to the eternal unfolding of life.
Dear Family and Friends,
9/11 burns and sears through the world psyche. Far from over, it rages relentlessly with no margins of forgiveness. And that is precisely why, now more than ever, it is essential to focus on what uplifts, what gives hope, what builds and rebuilds in the face of tragedy almost beyond the limits of our human capacity to grasp or to understand.
And sure enough, as you know well by now, rebuilding has been of prime importance these past five years in Tohoku. Reconstruction includes pretty much everything from the ground up. Roads, office buildings, and homes may be the most overt of these many changes. But there are others happening as well.
Right below where I live there is a small stream that winds its way between homes and gardens. The bridges over it are old and the water pipes under it are rickety. The narrow bridge nearest my apartment is one small structure, in one small neighborhood. Even so, the government realizes the importance of keeping it solid and strong. Hence repairs have been underway there for the past few months.
Signs let us know what is happening. “Please excuse the inconvenience as we install new, strong water pipes. We are doing this so that when the next earthquake comes you will be sure of having water.” Or “This bridge is being reinforced so you can go over it with confidence.” And “We care about your neighborhood, so are doing our best to make it safe for you.”
I either walk or ride my bike down that street daily, so the workmen know me, the lone foreigner in the area. I am often stopped so oncoming work vehicles can get by. And as I am waiting, one of the signalmen likes to chat. It turns out he speaks some English. “Hi. Where you from?” “I been to Niagara, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. America I like. My name is Asano Takashi, but please call me Hank.”
When I told him I wanted to write an article about the work he and his men were doing, he said, “Really? You crazy. This job very small, very, very small.” I asked him what would be better to write about. “Highways, big office buildings, the subway,” he said gesturing with wide-open arms.
“I know,” I replied, “but my theme is a bit different. I want to show the everyday life of people. I want my friends to know the many, many small things that are being done to rebuild this entire area of Tohoku. I think all these tiny repairs separately and together are very important.”
“I think you crazy,” he said with a beaming smile.
Maybe so, but precisely because of all the small, seemingly unimpressive repairs occurring everywhere, living here now can be very positive and uplifting. Of course, rebuilding is making life muddy and inconvenient; but it is also filling our psyches with hope. It gives a tremendous sense of security knowing the government cares enough to come to small neighborhoods to stabilize the very foundations upon which we live.
So indeed, the repairs happening on all levels, from the most impressive to the least significant, are all coming together to fortify our lives: our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. And that, in turn, allows us to look to each day positively and to the future with confidence that no matter what may come, we can and will endure.