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つかの間の日本 – A Brief Return to Japan

When putting in my notice, clarification was sought on when I might be leaving. Rather than putting in the standard two weeks, life was unfolding in such a way that it had to be less. And while I had no intentions of callously waving an ultimatum before them, it would have had to be a week regardless of how they received it. Although I had nothing on the calendar just yet, a job change offered me an opportunity to jump over to Japan before the new gig kicked off. Of course the appeal of revisiting my old stomping grounds was there, but the overwhelming motivation for the trip was to catch up with May. She’d been there two months while her Peruvian work visa cleared and in this brief moment I had myself a window. May of course has the dual citizenship, but having spent her entire upbringing in Yokohama, Japan was home. The chance to see and know that enormous side of her life was invaluable, and something that I needed to see realized. All scheduling once arrived was left to May, with priority being family, friends, and a bit of tourism.
12077507_10153557706341878_1801517187_nThe morning after my last day at Profile, I was on a plane to Narita. An unconscious bus ride later, word of my safe passage was relayed to May. There were no means of contacting her prior to hijacking the WiFi at the YCAT Starbucks, so while her concern for my late arrival was noted, so too was the complete inevitability of the situation. I was received warmly, and soon the two of us ran over to meet her mother at the nearby supermarket. I had met parents Yoko and Shin previously during their visit to see May back in Chicago, so there were no fears as we rolled back towards the homestead. After a quick freshening up, it was time to revisit the culinary glory of this country. The food was amazing, but so was the long overdue sleep that followed. The ovum being displayed have yolks of the most intense orange.
11667920_10153557705706878_1758054362_nLending credence to the apparent fate of this trip, their next door neighbors were out of the country and arrangements were made for me to stay in their stead. Of course I can thank the jet lag for bringing me to life at 5am, but I went on over next door and got started with breakfast. Once May awoke [at a more normal hour], we readied ourselves and took off. The plan was to visit an old-timey ramen museum, meet her family for lunch, and then get whisked away to grandma’s for a most grandiose dinner. The museum was done up to look as urban Japan did 100 years ago, and all the shops offered various types of ramen and classic treats. For lunch we met at the very best soba place around – a fact confirmed by the Yakuza floating around the entrance. May and I, along with big sister Ai, Shin, and the paternal grandmother were all very pleased with the meal. You are likely going to notice that food playeed a major role in this trip…
IMG_0647May and I left to hit Uniqlo and roam about before getting over near the edge of Saitama. We picked up some flowers and made our way over to the NW burbs for a banquet with the grandmother and uncle on the other side. While all were surely excited to have me present, the real occasion was that Ai was visiting from NYC. I made sure not to botch my first introductions, and then helped to get the plethora of food onto the table. My mouth salivated seeing all my favorite school lunch meals being brought out, along with numerous other delicacies. With the addition of our beer and sake, the table was set. Hot dogs weren’t a part of this meal, but I still ate everything with relish.
IMG_0652I had been tipped off that May’s uncle was a fan of whiskey, so my gift for him was a pretty decent bottle of bourbon. He was excited and seemed to acknowledge the quality, but then went on to produce an excellent bottle of Japanese Nikka Yoichi whiskey for me in exchange. He had just come from a festival, which explains his appearance.
IMG_0861On one of the days, May and I did do a little bit of tourism. We journeyed an hour by train down to Kamakura, which was declared the capital back in 1192 and left it filled with temples and history. The area sits on the coast to the south of Tokyo, and the numerous religious sites make it scenic spot for both pilgrims and tourists alike. My time in Japan happened to fall during Silver Week, a string of consecutive Japanese holidays, so the the place was heaving. I had visited briefly during my first ever trip to Japan, but May’s guidance brought a added appreciation. Of course we had to stop at the Great Buddha, though May didn’t want to go inside…
12083674_10153557706091878_1220535713_nWe swung into the Zeniarai Benten Shrine where people wash their money in the hope that it will multiply. The queue was a far too long for just a bit of folklore so we left and strolled on over to the Hasedera Temple. This one overlooks the ocean, lovely gardens, and has an exceptionally large wooden statue of Kannon. These places are so photogenic that time was inevitably spent framing up statues and monuments. We beat the heat with some shaved ice and a bit of the local beer before navigating our way back to Yokohama.
IMG_0715Though memory fails me somewhat, I do believe it was that evening in which May’s paternal grandmother Ajama would be treating us all to a home-cooked meal. She breaded and fried beef cutlets and onions. Shin was kind enough to grab some milk tea and beers for me, which was very much appreciated. Someone had also snagged a few fish dishes from the market as a compliment to the spread.IMG_0728IMG_0730 IMG_0731After dinner was a little family show-and-tell session. May’s grandfather had been a Kamikaze pilot back in WWII, though his number was never called. All pilots carried with them a flag on which their friends, family, and military peers would write messages representative of Japan’s a bygone imperialistic mentality. ‘Give your life for your country’, for example. There was talk of how hard it was for him cope with being alive while having lost so many of his fellow pilots to the cause. This flag is a really interesting piece of Japanese and family history that I took a lot of time to appreciate.
IMG_0732On one afternoon, May and I went to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. This is the one that always fires up Korea and China when the Japanese politicians visit as it venerates those who have fallen fighting for Japan. While any country would consider it’s fallen warriors to be heroes, the opposing side doesn’t generally view them in the same light. I know there is more to the arguments but mostly I just think that all involved need to shut up and get over it. We walked around the grounds and also visited a Kamikaze museum. There was plenty more to see than just that though; inside was a full military history from every civil and international war the nation had been involved with throughout history. With our time limited, the focus was more on the Kamikaze portion. There were letters written by pilots to friends and family explaining what would transpire in the coming days, and the strength they had to have. Glad I could work through them in Japanese since the translations really fell short in conveying the emotions of the author. Here on the path up to the shrine, a sign shows when one must demount their horse, and a nearer one exists for the emperor.
IMG_0684On one particularly exciting evening, I met with a number of May’s closest friends. We started at a restaurant that served all sorts of skewered meats and veggies, along with various snacks. After wrapping up, we moved on over to an izakaya to finish off the night. This trio has comprised May’s core group for years, going all the way back to kindergarten. Collectively they spoke very limited English, but that didn’t stop us from all having a great time. As I mentioned earlier, the true purpose of this visit was for me to see and know the Japanese side of her life, and such an event was perfect for it. As you can no doubt surmise from the photo, that bottle of soy sauce was a pretty big deal.
IMG_0671One other outing that we had planned would actually be taking me to the family’s ancestral homelands of Chiba. That’s overselling a bit, but they knew the priest at a temple, and also had the family grave over there on the other side of Tokyo Bay. We took the 9.6 km Aqua-Line tunnel shortcut that goes under the bay, followed by some time on a causeway and a long drive south. Having gone to the effort of getting an international license for the trip, I was humored somewhat and allowed to get back behind the wheel. Eventually we reached the southern town of Futsuu. We stopped into the store to grab some flowers for the grave, which is where I met a few smaller individuals. Some speculate that the place names in Gulliver’s Travels were based on the actual names of cities in Japan…
IMG_0755Summers in Japan are generally when people make the hike back to their hometown to visit the family grave. We took our flowers and a bucket of water to the stone where we spruced things up. Once all was set, there was a brief pause to appreciate all those ancestors who had come before. As it was explained to me, ‘without even one of them we wouldn’t be here, so even if we’ve never met them personally their existence is worth remembering’. I was happy to be a part of what is such an authentic a Japanese practice. The same process was carried out at a couple nearby graves belonging to friends of the family.
IMG_0758From the graveyard, we swung by the Kezouin Temple where May’s distant relative served as the head priest. We snooped around the main hall a bit before leaving to explore the wharf while the adults talked. This little fisherman’s town didn’t have a whole lot going on, but offered plenty enough for a stroll. We traced a small river until reaching the sea. Being early afternoon, the fishing activities had long concluded, but we walked among the boats for a bit. For the life of me I cannot relocate any of the perfect photos we took there, but know that I had a few good puns to go along with them. We went back to Kezouin and loaded back up into the Noah to get some food. Given the predominant industry of the town, seafood offerings were top notch. We went to a local  restaurant called Banya where I selected a simple kaisendon. This is just the day’s catch, raw and on rice.
kaisendonMay’s childhood home has evolved over the years to meet the needs of the family. What was once a spacious living area has been pared back markedly to accommodate an entire kindergarten and staff. Unsatisfied with the state of education in Japan, Yoko decided to open up the International Language House as her answer to what she believes are the shortcomings. Based on a few conversations, her pedagogy emphasizes English ability and independence. Though May has grown weary of waking to ‘I’m a Little Teapot’ over the years, I had some real nostalgic feels while walking among the 50 or students. The yard is filled with playground equipment too.
IMG_0791I was on the receiving end of a lot of love from the family dog, Fanta.
IMG_0849The last meal of the trip took place at the airport McDonald’s. For some reason this chain does a fantastic job of adapting its menu to the Japanese market. Being September I had already planned to to snag a tsukimi burger, but was pleased to pair it with some cheesy rice balls and a sweet potato shake as well. The lack of Shaka Shaka Chicken will forever be tragic. My flight came soon, and before long I was back in the states – life as usual. The trip was short and sweet, but May and I did manage to cram in absolutely all that I could have hoped for, and certainly everything that I came to do. No idea when the next trip will come, but hopefully it involves me showing her a bit of my Japan.
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