The International Writers Magazine: Four Days in Tokyo
Fred C Wilson 111
Meeting up with pen-pals in Tokyo
It was early evening when we met the Anzai’s at the airport. The train ride from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport reminded me how different, yet similar, Japan was from the United States.
I’m a people watcher; got to be if you want to be able to write about ‘em. The Japanese are very formal; the men wore suits, carried attaché cases while the women wore Western styled dresses and skirts. The people are shorter, serious, thin and appear always in a hurry. The only fat person I saw was the guy in my mirror. Highway lanes are considerably smaller than their U.S. counterparts; the people appear to be micromanaged by some internal clock.
||Girls dye their hair blond; many dress like Manga comic book characters. The Japanese appear to embrace everything Western except religion. Japan is run by the ‘numbers’ where people know their places. My wife and I were spending four days with her girlhood pen pal and her family. Emiko is a travel writer, husband Saita works in an office and their betrothed daughter Keiko works from home.
We walked towards the commuter train station through the darkness. A large number of elderly men lingered outside the station. Their clothes were ragged. Those old men sat on flatten cardboard boxes, wore hang dog expressions and rarely raised their heads. They were homeless victims of Japan’s economic meltdown. When I enquired about their status Emiko quickly countered “they are not without homes but are rich businessmen who prefer living on the streets because family problems prevented them from returning home!”
Yeah-right; if you believe that you could believe the Blue Fairy’s real and the Cubs will win a World Series. I remember the time I asked a waiter in Baguio City, Philippines to lend me a corkscrew to open a bottle of wine. This joker told me the reason the wine wasn’t flowing was because “I was holding the bottle the wrong way.” Had he told me he didn’t know what a corkscrew was I’d believe him. The man was so sincere in his deception I scratched my head in bewilderment.
The Anzai’s, like many Japanese considered homelessness a national embarrassment and refuse to acknowledge its existence. Point, did you know Japanese school children are taught the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was in self-defense, that atrocities committed by Japan in World War II are lies. The man who led the infamous attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor Commander-turned-Christian evangelist Mitsuo Fuchido was enraged after learning the truth of his country’s involvement from an American library book in 1967! Many Japanese to this day refuses to own up to its genocidal war record.
We rode the train from the airport to the transfer station then purchased our tickets. Unlike Chicago’s ‘L’ train there were no escalators or elevators but plenty of stairs that led to the platform. My corpulence almost got the better of me; I hate stairs! From there we caught the train to the suburban town where the Anzai’s lived.
The train was crowded with weary commuters. As it sped us to our destination I was tempted to join the sleepers. Our fellow passengers were a mixed lot. The women sat stoically, mentally reviewing their day. The men drank alcoholic beverages while they sat comfortably and read their papers or thumbing through magazines. A few dozed off victims of workholicism I term the ‘Japanese disease.’ Some looked sleep deprived. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Shinjuku-Sanchome Station. My wife and I were met by Keiko her betrothed daughter. She drove us home in her pick-up.
|The average Japanese house is small, yet compact. What was unique was the bathroom’s wooden flooring a high-tech toilet with an assortment of dials, a bidet for female use and a button that does the job toilet paper once did. The room contained a Jacuzzi, sauna, and standing shower for soaping your body; bathing in Japan in an adventure.
The kitchen was Western. The rest of the house was typically Japanese replete with katami mats, the occasional bonsai tree and floor mats for sleeping. My one complaint was that Japan like South Korean amenities appeared four sizes too small. I’m a big dude.
I’m an early riser. I got up at 5, brushed my teeth, washed and managed to figure out how to use the toilet while everybody slept. I went outside to breathe in the clean morning air. I spent a few minutes to scan my surroundings and meditate. Minutes later the daily paper arrived. The deliverywoman handed me the newspaper and said something in Japanese; we exchanged customary bows. I said “Arigato” then went back in the house. If you want to impress your hosts memorize a few phrases in their language; reading lines from a guidebook won’t hack it.
The Japanese are very health conscious. Breakfast consisted of tea, coffee, toast, a bit of fruit, sliced tomatoes, no meat, and plenty of happy conversation. That day we stayed home. My wife suffered from jet lag. That horrendous 18 hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo took its toll. I’m a ‘large person;’ squeezing into one of those tiny JAL seats presented me an enormous challenge. When the plane touched down I felt like a spent pretzel in a beer garden all chewed up. I needed the day off to unwind. Later that morning we exchanged gifts. Our ever gracious hosts presented my wife with a beautiful blue silk kimono. I returned the favor by presenting them with one of my finest ceramic pieces. During my pottery years my works were hot items at art shows. My wife tried on the kimono. My gift was placed regally in their living room on a small table.
The jet lag wore off. We took to the open road. My wife did what ordinary Japanese women do; shop. Keiko drove us to a Japanese version of Jewel OSCO or Trader Joes. Don’t ask me the name. If I knew I couldn’t pronounce it. The products had Japanese labels, packaged in similar manner as in American stores; the physical plant resembled its U.S. counterparts. The items offered were purchasable in Asian super markets back home ‘cause I’ve checked.
‘Construction Season’ is universal, or at least in cold weather countries were roads are subject to the extreme temperature conditions. Road crews were working everywhere. Despite constant activity traffic flowed freely. What I found disappointing about the Japanese landscape was that; except for oriental style roof tops and people Japan appeared as a scaled down version of the United States only cleaner and greener ecologically and horticulturally. The Golden Arches and other U.S. fast food chains dotted the countryside. To many U.S. tourists seeing so much Americana abroad makes them feel at home. I wanted something uniquely Japanese. I didn’t have long to bemoan my situation.
||The small village of Mashiko is a ceramicist dream. Located 62 miles (100km) north of Tokyo this uniquely Japanese village is famous for its Mashiko-yaki style of pottery. According to Frommer’s destinations ‘Mashiko’s history as a pottery town began in 1853, when a potter discovered ideal conditions in the nearby mountain clay and red pine wood for firing. It wasn’t until 1930, however, that Mashiko gained national fame, when the late Hamada Shoji, designated a Living National Treasure, built a kiln here and introduced Mashiko-ware throughout Japan'.
|Other potters have since taken up his technique, producing ceramics for everyday use, including plates, cups, vases, and tableware. Altogether, there are about 50 pottery shops in Mashiko (along with 300 kilns) into which you can wander and watch craftspeople at work. Pottery fares, held twice a year in late April/early May and late October/early November, attract visitors from throughout Japan. We arrived in Japan in July.
Many Japanese are heavy drinkers. There were tubs of suds everywhere. Beer vending machines and eating establishments that catered to the country’s alcoholic tastes could be found on every block. I love beer and ceramics. I was in potters’ heaven! We toured gift shops, galleries, and lunched at a local restaurant. When our meal was over our hosts had to pour me back into our vehicle. Did I lay one on that day; an inebriating experience. The Japanese people are orderly to a fault and very well behaved. Having beer machines, curbside liquor services like they do in Japan and Vietnam would never go over in the States. Our people couldn’t handle it.
Point—I remember the summer of 1979. The hometown White Sox hosted Detroit for a doubleheader. It was ‘Disco Demolition Night;’ between games fans were invited on the playing field to burn records in protest over the Disco craze that swept the country during the 1970’s. Frenzied fans cleared the stands. They mobbed the playing field. They built a bonfire near center field and toasted thousands of Disco disks. What started as a party became a riot. 90 minutes of pure mayhem fueled by 10 cents a cup beer drove 55,000 crazed fans to damn near burn Comiskey (US Cellular Field) Park to the ground! Players and umpires fled for their lives! Fans charged player dugouts! Police eventually quelled the rioting. Game two was forfeited to Detroit. On-the-street booze machines HERE; no friggin’ way! We’re not Japanese; we’re Americans; the wild frontier spirit is embedded deep within our collective mindset.
|Japan’s commuter trains connect suburbs to cities. I noticed a number of one car trains with a lone passenger inside. Long distance commuter lines were once the staple of U.S. cities until ‘Detroit’ lobbied Congress to place more emphasis on building interstate highways for their automobiles.
We arrived home early that evening. After dinner we were joined by a delegation of Japanese mothers accompanied by their school age children of varying ages. I was asked to give a talk comparing and contrasting Japanese and American educational systems. I’m a former public school teacher; 32 years on ‘the line.’ It was a labor of love. What struck me as odd was when before my talk Emiko blurted out “We Japanese are not a religious people; we have no Mass here.” Not that it was any of my business but my talk was on education not theology.
Asia’s women have been belittled for centuries. In modern Japan roles have been reversed. My audience was glad they were women and derided their workaholic husbands. The ladies said they enjoyed their lives as stay-at-home moms, homemakers, wives, and wouldn’t want things any other way. The ladies asked me questions the U.S. media were reluctant to touch. I answered them as best I could.
It was our last day. A few hours later my wife and I would be making the next leg of our annual Asian odyssey. We would continue with JAL to Manila in the Philippine Islands. From there we would branch out to other exotic Asian lands.
We left for Narita early that morning our fourth day. Keiko drove us to the station. Breakfast at the Tokyo fast food restaurant was marginal at best, horrendous at worst; don’t ever buy ‘American styled breakfasts’ in foreign countries except South Korea where they know what they’re doing. If you value your taste buds, and I may be overly bias when I say this…but what the hell…here goes; nobody on planet earth can ever cook ‘American’ like Americans. I assume the same is true for other national cuisines. Ever buy ‘Chinese’ at a ‘Soul Food’ place that tasted like the genuine article? Don’t think so; with breakfast mercifully over our gracious hosts joined us for the ride back to Narita. As the train proceeded towards the airport I conversed with Keiko who spoke near perfect English, unlike Emiko and husband Saita. Once we boarded the train she asked us to stand though there were plenty of available seats. She informed us that we got on the train earlier than scheduled; it was customary to stand so regular scheduled commuters could sit. This was typical of the Japanese spirit; their every action subject to a rigid honor code priority train seating no exception.
It was time to say ‘Sayonara.’ Check-in was quick. A group of high-school girls in sailor uniforms stood nearby talking with their teachers. My wife and I bade farewell to our hosts and told them we’ll meet again in 30 days. When we returned we planned to stay over night readying ourselves for that 18 hour jaunt across the blue Pacific towards home sweet home Chicago. Our flight was on time. Five hours later we deplaned at Ninoy Aquino International the Philippine capitol fresh from our happy stay in Japan.
Here’s some sites to peruse if you’re serious about visiting Japan:
The Japan Rail Pass
Despite their several visits to Chicago we gradually lost touch with our Japanese friends. We don’t know if they survived the 2011 disasters. They never returned our emails. I hope they’re safe; Sayonara and happy trip.
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