Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thoughts of Japan

I wrote a short version of the story of this trip last year, but wished to expand on it and share, in light of the tragedy in Japan. The Japanese Garden pictures were taken at my Dad's, a place he finds great peace. Work has taken me to Japan on more than one occasion, including recently. It is a land and culture very different from ours, yet, in ever aspect I was treated with great kindness and respect. I hope those that I worked along side and met are safe. There are many organizations that are providing aid, one that I have volunteered with is

In our country, the damage is in millions and with great losses to fishing families and others out West. My prayers go out to them.

Arthur - Let's go somewhere.
Trillian - Definitely. Where'd you have in mind?
Ford - I know this great restaurant at the end of the universe.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Traveling. It takes you away from yourself. Yet you bring back so much. Things that you would never experience in an 8 to 5 job in an office ten miles from your house. Things that make you deeper and richer and fuller for the experience. Things that make you more of what you would be without it. Those singular moments that make you savor the sheer fullness of life.

Yet I'll be honest. I've experienced as much just in my hometown, laughter and discoveries shared with friends. Sights and smells and sounds that were around me all the time. Little shops of delight we would find off the beaten path. Yet there are certain foreign trips that just stuck with me, years after they were made. There is just something about certain nights across time zones and evenings in strange lands, sounds and smells tapping at your window like shy children, that stay with you .

Depending on the work involved, this time can simply be two or three days, sometimes several weeks, and before you know it, anxiously awaited or pulled from it like a lovers embrace, it's done. Time to leave. I remember launching one morning on a flight over the British Isles, the location of one of the world's most beautiful countries; where you'll fly over the Prime Meridian. The Prime Meridian is the common zero for longitude and time reckoning throughout the globe. The one place where we are all at one point, and the moment stands still, an absolute where for a second everything is perfectly in tune and time seizes the day. Where, with a slug of lousy airplane coffee, you'll synchronize your watch and attempt to capture that time, to somehow gather it to you and forget the confusion that jet lag and foreign soil has brought.

Different languages and sights, smells and sounds - a glass of Guinness in Dublin, the crisp sharpness of a Croft Cider apple, the soft sweetness of a Tuscany countryside, the noise of traffic on the Autobahn. At this point you're still at the Prime Meridian where there is preciseness and unity, and the deep aesthetic calm of sameness.

There is watching the sun rise and set in lands I've only dreamt of, gazing at descending pure light that dwindled slowly, as it reluctant to leave. It was as if for a moment, time had stopped for a while, my path heading on into the twilight, the light and the sense of movement seemingly stopped yet swift in its measure, like stolen moments with the hearts longing.

It's not home, and you're still dead tired, yet for a moment, looking out at the innate vastness that is a world so much bigger than you, you relive those captured moments in time. Times of awe and wonder at just being alive to see the sun come up over a distant land. A land at the edge of an ocean that will lead you back someday, but not now, for on the horizon are new lands.

A while back work took me to Japan. It wasn't a trip for anything other than serious, solemn business, but I wanted to explore it a bit if I had an afternoon somewhere free. My Uncle had traveled a lot there in his work for Boeing, and in my home I had beautiful pieces of lacquered wood, small decorative boxes, and pieces of ceramic and wood that he'd brought back for me. Even as a small child I understood the beauty of these pieces and didn't use them for Barbie furniture or play, they were simply displayed with reverence for what they were, touched gently to bring a memory of my favorite Uncle who gave them to me.

Thankfully I was able to do a day or two of sightseeing at the end the Japan trip, using some personal leave time, before flying home. Navigating the streets armed with some carefully organized directions and a bento box lunch, I commanded the Metro, taking in temples and galleries, savoring piles of sticky rice. sitting like royalty on a cushion. So many people, yet the city so clean, almost vibrating with movement and life.

The language I could only subtly grasp for it's hard to take one's thinking from romance language syntax (subject-verb-object) to the Japanese syntax (subject-object-verb). It's not that difficult to learn, but it's more difficult to understand. In Japan, a part of tatemae is speaking diplomatically, and what is not said may be more important than what is. As best I could, I simply watched and learned, and fortunately didn't hear too many times the phrase, Nihongo wa jouzu desu neh, or "Your Japanese is good". Seemingly a compliment, it's usually spoken with the most subtle of "Look Mom, the dog can do math problems" nuance -- slightly condecending but without the egocentric superiority I found in other cultures. I took no offense, finding my own humor in my attempt to navigate such a strange, wondrous country.

Tokyo was overcrowded and noisy. Tokyo was brilliant. I wandered amongst a river of people, more than I'd seen in any Western town I'd worked in, a tall foreign stick floating through masses of dark flowing crowds. I was fearful of the torrent yet felt so free in the rushing current. Yet when I got to my big city hotel, a small coffin like room with all the ambiance of a dental lab, I was even more aware I was alone. There was no one I could share these discoveries with, and the solitary quality of my life sent waves through my water like countenance.

But I experienced it, for what good is it that you deny yourself the experience of life because there is no one to share it with. So in the morning, rather than catch an earlier flight home, I charted down new waters, taking a train to Kyoto.

The bullet train, two hundred and twenty miles an hour of escape, with no turbulence or horrid little dried out peanuts. We rode in swift quiet, it being considered rude to use a cell phone on a bus or train. The world flowed past, the eyes around me alive and serene as earth and water flowed smoothly past from north to south, all in its ordered place. The Shinkansen, taking me past mist shrouded mountains and ridges rising in stratified layers of green, gray and blue, that were as delicate as a painting. Kyoto is a subliminally gentle and beautiful city, spared the bombings that Tokyo experienced, it was unchanged from war, full of graceful old buildings, delicate flowers surrounding shops, framed in an astonishment of design. Small winding paths scattered with tiny flower blossoms, like rice at a brides feet, took me from landscape to landscape. Bridges built with the strength of steel yet the delicacy of lace, crossing small still waters, arching high into space, there between silence and absence. I simply wandered, moving from cool solacing green, spun from white radiance of the hot sun, to shadowed canopies formed of ancient wood, I breathed deep. Breathed the lilting history of order and peace, and my loneliness left me. I returned to calmness, returned to that floating course of my trip.

I checked into my hotel, and went to the bathhouse to refresh myself. In a mini garden, verdant green plants tended lovingly by small women, the bathhouse had walls and floor of cedar slats, the smell of herbs wafting up from their seams. It was an experience unlike any hurried morning shower. The steam, the scrubbing, the intermingling caress of soft cloth and vigorous bristled brush, smooth soap gliding, washing away the smell of diesel and the city, the miles and miles it took me to get here.

The late afternoon was simply a walk, an exploration, the blossoms along the river inviting me, the scents, the color. I watched others even as they politely did not watch me, a young man about my height with tawny skin and strong arms, his form a sweetened condensed version of the overated American ideal of large and heavily muscled. A young woman with skin the color of porcelian, skin you just wnated to reach out and touch, bent over lovingly tending a tea garden. And the children, colorful garmets and smiles, clutching their mommy's hands as they went hurried past miniscule shops, their windows a wonder of design, glass and small delicicies, writing paper, and there in the hands of a little girl, a samurai kite. I tried not to stare, sharing that recognized need for privacy that can coexist with a life that is completly open to the world. There was a fascination with the watching though, that blending of childlike and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects that which it loves even if it is naive to the earth's subterfuge.

Dinner was at a small restaurant recommended by one of the locals, a tiny little place, embedded within a small building of wood and stone, as if it it had always been here, marked simply by a small piece of cloth. The food, fresh and sublime; I knelt on soft pillows as silent, beautiful women passed me tidbits of delicate, sweet and plump food, the table an array of color and form. Textures of firmness and soft, tastes of sweet, salty and hot.

With a Gochisosama deshita I reluctantly left to follow winding trails of paper lanterns, that followed the turn of the land, guiding me with small beacons of pink and peach. Smells sweet yet unfamiliar wafted up as my feet brushed virgin shoot into hard stone. A path to an even tinier tea house, where I savored green tea and roasted wrapped rice, a sticky sweet candy taste, a subtle delicacy that would put a rice crispy treat to shame. The tastes and smells were brought to me on a gentle night wind that assaulted my senses and the thought of fast food was as foreign to me at this moment as this moment would have been to me a week ago.

But it would be soon time to leave, my plane awaited, and I made my way back to my hotel, where I lay alone on a plush white futon, lying under soft earth-toned quilts, the sound of water trickling from a fountain, sending thoughts and desires tricking down my spine.

Floating between sleep and reality while the days restful blend of cultures and words, smells and sound, nipped gently at my wakefulness, I drifted into half sleep. I began a dream that I was not alone, that I was entwined with someone, infused with content. We would wake, the trickle of a fountain the only other sound, murmuring incoherently to one another, lips nuzzled against necks, bellies, breath, tears of rejoining, lapping at that salt lick of nourishment. Emotions flowing in waves past clenched teeth, I drifted further into sleep and my dream lover grew silent, not speaking of time future or past, everything existing in that moment. Outside a rumble of thunder, a lightning flash within the deep folds of night that strikes like the writing finger of God, creating life from barrenness.

But I did not hear it, continuing my floating journey in dream life. Sleeping deep dreams of colors and textures, visions of taste, sweet, salty, hot. Sleeping visions that would stay within me on my return, deep dreams that someone who had never left the confine of their small enclosed office, might not understand. Dreams I would not have had, had I stayed home 24 and 7.

Yet, I missed my friends, my own bed and my home, the small comforts of familiarity. Soon I would be back there again.

When I got home, I would gather up and breathe deep the clean scent of the green bedspread in the bedroom, the walls the color of verdant tea gardens, a large mirror with the streams of a Japanese river engraved on it in gold, reflecting the image of this wanderer of the sky and the earth. Unlike the rest of my house, which is decidedly Western in its design and decor, this room is a simple oasis for a traveler that stays, filled with things my Uncle brought back from Japan and a few little treasures that friends have bought for me in their own travels.

Outside now, where it is so familiar, yet so foreign to me, I look out to the curve of a small river beyond the dawn, morning light supine and placid upon the earth like broken pieces of glass. Beyond that, somewhere, the future, seen with hesitation but excitement, trembling and fragile, like small birds in the morning cold.

Small sounds, small feelings tricking through me like water. I think of all the new places my career has brought me to, the people that, for those moments in cities far away, those conversations at great distances, I would never have known. I rise from my bed with a smile, touching my hand to a small lacquered box in which contains a small stone whose twin is hundreds of miles away, there in another dream, in another land far away, still close to my heart.


  1. Thank-You for sharing this story with us.

  2. Well Said Brigid... Glad you got to see it before this happened!

  3. Considering how you treated Barbie, it's a good thing you didn't use that stuff for her furniture!

    Japanese always trips me up, it's full of what DLI calls "false cognates"--words that sound like words in another language, but mean something differant--for Korea.

    The potential for humor, and/or disaster, is easily imagined...

  4. Thank You for sharing your beautiful story with us.

  5. Excellent post.

    "Your Japanese is good". Reminded me of a friend in the dorm who was learning Japanese in preparation for a year at our sister university in Japan. He had a Japanese girl on our floor tutoring him. She was always very nice and polite when we'd ask how he was progressing saying that he was doing very well until one day she threw up her hands in frustration and blurted out "He's terrible" She'd apparently reached her threshold where her Japanese sense of politeness and respect was overcome.

  6. Very moving post on the country that houses our parent company.

    The first words back on Friday were telling from them in many ways. Damage reports to several plants scattered around Japan were not issued first, reports of any missing or family casualties was. Luckily none of our fellow workers or families were hurt.

    I do long to go back. There is not an equivalent to the English "R" letter in the language. My first name has a LOT of r's in it. We worked it out.

    My company as an owned separate company is taking donations for the relief effort and they will be matched by my company dollar for dollar. That will be sent to the local prefectures my company resides in. If you would like to help, let me know.

    Yes we are gaijin, but we all get over it. As it should be in times such as these.

  7. I am endlessly fascinated with your ability to write like that, and your ability to experience things like that.



I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..