In our last sabbatical story, we left our intrepid travelling family just back from Israel, homeless and cold, wandering the streets of Seattle. Well, we were still homeless until the end of June, but we also had some great experiences. We've formed even stronger friendships with the friends we lived with these past months. And we had a truly fabulous five-week trip in Japan.
Cathy and the kids flew business class (David had a lot of frequent flyer miles to use up in a hurry). She says she'll never fly business class with kids again because, while the seats are bigger, the service is geared exclusively towards businessmen. Instead of the coloring books, bassinets and helping hands offered by coach class flight attendants, Cathy was offered lots of free liqueurs (well, Akiva really does like to play with those little Kahlua bottles) and more than a few scathing looks (by business travelers and flight attendants alike). Even the changing table in the business class bathroom was hard to use; sometime you should try to juggle an unhappy infant while moving paper cups in a dispenser out of the way so that the so-called changing table can open.
We flew into the new Kansai International Airport (built on landfill and sinking a foot or so each year, so this might be our last time in that airport). Our first impressions were that Japan was incredibly crowded and clean. It was also hot and humid. In fact, coming from cold, wet Seattle, it was a shock. We left Japan without ever opening our suitcase full of socks, raincoats, and polar fleece jackets.
It wasn't supposed to be so hot. April and May are supposed to filled with mild, dry, and pleasant spring days, perfect for ohanami, cherry blossom viewing parties. We'd looked forward to seeing cherry blossoms throughout our trip, and many places we visited still had scheduled cherry festival events, but they were held sans blossoms. We saw a few flowering trees only up in the hills. According to the Japanese, spring is also perfectly dry. Rainy season begins June 1. But we were caught in the rain more than once. El Nino and global warming are beginning to wreak havoc on the laws of nature that govern Japanese traditions.
Like many Asian countries, Japan is amazingly crowded. Japanese people also travel a lot, so from the immigration desk to the train that took us into Osaka, there were huge crowds of small, slim, graceful, black-haired people. And since it was an international airport, there were also a few hairy, gallumping, clumsy giants like us. Given how crowded Japan is, it is awesomely clean and orderly. Every visible surface -- floors, windows and chairs -- is constantly being cleaned by an army of cleaning men and women.
Once out of the airport, David impressed Cathy by quickly figuring out which buttons to push on the Japanese-only vending machine to get reserved train tickets to Osaka. Hauling stroller (yes, the famous stroller that we shipped to Israel), baby backpack and suitcases, we boarded the immaculately clean airport train. Japanese appear never to carry luggage because they use takkubin. Takkubin is a great system that allows you to send a piece of luggage overnight to your home, office or hotel room anywhere in Japan for less than $20. We actually used takkubin quite a lot, but with the baby, we also ended up carrying a lot on trains. (It would have been easier to ship the baby by takkubin, but there appears to be a rule against this.)
People say there really is no best time to travel with kids. The last time we all went to Japan, Emma was just learning to walk. This time, Akiva tested our travelling skills by starting to crawl. Traditional Japanese furnishings turned out to be great for children though. In most of the places we stayed, we slept on three futons laid side by side on tatami mats. Akiva could crawl anywhere and Emma could flail at night without danger of falling. Japanese architecture is also fun. In the mansion apartment we stayed in in Osaka (some close friends kindly let us use this apartment as our home base when we're in Japan), Emma loved the sliding shoji doors that she could open to expand four small rooms into one big room. She was also entranced by the bathroom and kitchen built for someone just about her height (we had to warn her to be careful with tap water hot enough to brew tea, however). David, on the other hand, had some unkind words for the kitchen sink as he crouched to wash dishes, and still has not recovered from frequent bumps on his head from the six-foot shoji doorframe.
On the first morning in Japan, Emma and Cathy were jetlagged. At daybreak, they went out on the U-shaped walkway around the 14th floor, expecting to see businessmen rushing off to work. It was quiet. The courtyard was filled with trees, the last of the cherry blossoms drifted to the ground. Then they heard running. A newspaper delivery boy had started at the 15th floor and was running around each floor delivering papers to perhaps half of the 300 households in the complex. Several other identical buildings made up the nearly 1000 units that housed most of the residents of our Osaka neighborhood. In addition to the housing complex there are smaller apartment buildings and even smaller houses, tucked into narrow streets. (It never ceases to astonish us that a tiny 3DK -- an apartment with 3 bedrooms, dining-kitchen area -- in this complex costs about as much as our huge six bedroom house in Seattle.)
Cathy especially liked walking around the neighborhood and admiring the gardens of flowers, climbing vines and shrubs people created on narrow lanes with intensive care, water and fertilizer. She was especially amazed at the prodigious sized maple trees and azalea bushes growing out of small Styrofoam picnic containers. Like houseboat owners in Seattle, the Japanese have learned how to make beauty in small spaces, both inside and outside.
One of the nicest things about the Osaka apartment is its neighborhood. The supermarket is right in front of the huge housing complex, and a few blocks down is a long shopping street, covered for about 6 blocks at the second-story roof line; the old clay-tile roofs and facades intermixed with new stores. There are shops selling takeout food like tempura, sushi, and onigiri, merchandise like shoes, hats, and tatami mats. And of course there was Emma's favorite 100 yen store (the equivalent of the dollar store in the US). And there are restaurants including quick slurp-as-you-stand noodles, tiny family places that make their own soba noodles, at least four vegetable stands with beautiful fresh fruit for gifts and, also for gifts, a fancy cake and chocolate store (with a chocolate tanuki Cathy coveted) and four beautiful flower stands. We quickly rediscovered favorite foods at small vendor carts frying rice balls, okonomiyaki omelets, yaki-tori (grilled chicken), bean cakes, sansai soba (mountain vegetable noodles), and zaru soba (cold noodles perfect for hot summer days.) The shopping street had at least six places where we could get film developed in one hour, the inevitable Pachinko parlor near the train station, lots of vending machines (selling soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, disposable cameras, and "Mandom" condoms -- no Viagra yet, though). And just around one corner was a place we could frequently be found with a coin laundry, coffee shop, karaoke bar and sento (public bath). Akiva and Emma were admired by many store owners, and one woman rushed off to buy Akiva two apples at a fruit stand when she first met him.
The shopping street has its own rhythm. Businessmen and school kids rush through from 7:30 to 9AM, then grandmothers with pushcarts make sure that everyone in the neighborhood knows each others' business from 9 to 11, then moms pick up kids at preschool and shop until 2, then school kids come home, then women come out for last minute shopping until 5. Most shops don't open until 10AM and close at 8 or sometimes later (to accommodate late returning businessmen).
Emma never really got the knack of walking along the shopping street. With no sidewalks, and store merchandise and vendors spilling out into the street, it is tricky to negotiate through the crowds of pedestrians, bicycles laden with schoolchildren, and occasional motorbikes piled high with demai -- take out meals. Part of the problem is that traffic flow in Japan is opposite that of the U.S.; people, like cars, pass on the right. The other skill Emma never mastered was to stop when a fast moving person or vehicle was bearing down on her. While this is how Japanese kids react in big, fast-moving crowds, Emma has ingrained the western approach of trying to quickly get out of the way. Still, we always enjoy walking in Japan and often walked many miles each day.
It seems everyone bikes in Japan. At our apartment complex there were parking spaces for what must have been thousands of bikes in double-decker racks. There were special bike racks for children, and our train station had paid bike parking as well as the inevitable pile of bikes tossed hurriedly on the street in front of the main entrance. Every mother rides with her kids (smaller children ride in front in a metal seat with no seatbelt, older ones in back), and no one wears helmets unless they are dressed in biking clothes for sport biking on a ten-speed bike. People do their marketing by bike -- all bikes come equipped with a large front basket; and rain doesn't stop the flow of bike traffic since the Japanese have mastered the art of biking while holding umbrellas. This makes it hard to also ring the bike's bell to warn pedestrians, but somehow everything works OK without many accidents at all.
Other than the 100 yen store, the sento was Emma's favorite place to hang out. There are fewer sento in Japan than there used to be, because more people are putting in baths in their houses; many of these at home are quite elaborate, with filtering systems, remote controls, and other features. But there is a feeling at a sento that differs from bathing at home. For one thing, it's a great place to meet the whole community; people seem less inhibited when they are naked. Sometimes too uninhibited, like the tattooed and very drunk guy who accosted David one night; actually, he was reasonably nice, trying to communicate, and mostly apologizing for his horrible English (he was definitely right about this, at least as far as one could tell through the slurred language). On the same night, we met two girls, about 10 years old, who took a liking to us and started practicing their English lesson, in a very sweet way. They were delighted when they met us later on the street, too.
The sento has an entrance way (with long thin lockers to check umbrellas and short square lockers to check shoes), a lobby where you can buy soap and towels if you forgot yours, and the tubs themselves, separate for men and for women. It costs about 250 yen for an adult (a little over $2), with discounts for frequent scrubbers. After you disrobe and check your clothes into yet another locker, there are several baths, including a very large hot tub (that could easily sit a dozen people) and a smaller cold tub, as well as a sauna. Most people don't use the tubs, in the California sense, except to take a quick dip after washing off very carefully at the faucets and showers that surround the tubs. Emma's favorite part was not the hot water --- she thought it was way too hot (and she was properly scared of the tub that has electrical current running through it, although a grandma or two seemed to like it a lot). Emma always asked for 200 yen, leaving Cathy and Akiva in the bath, so she could use the massage chairs and get a drink in the lobby. For 50 yen (about 35 cents), she sat in the massage chair for about 5-10 minutes as it rolled and kneaded and pounded her back. Emma would sit there and say, "It feels so good! It feels sooooo good!" The foot massager was only 10 yen, and that was another high-point for Emma. (We are looking to buy one of the massage chairs for our house in Seattle. We looked in Akihabara, the garish consumer electronics district in Tokyo, for massage chairs. And we found plenty. Now finding one that we can buy in the U.S. is a slightly different story.) The fact that Japanese TV was on in the lobby, usually showing baseball, bizarre game shows, or soap operas with kids as the stars was another plus for Emma. Cathy did find that washing a baby in the sento wasn't easy, but it really isn't easy anywhere.
Most mornings in Japan we ate big toast for breakfast. Think about WonderBread. On steroids. When you buy a loaf of bread in the store, it's always the same length. But you can choose whether it is cut into four, five, six or even a dozen slices. In any case, it's way thicker than most sliced breads in the U.S. And far less tasty. After one morning of big toast, we headed for Kyoto where David was due to spend a week at the 20th International Conference on Software Engineering. As usual, we sent some luggage by takkubin and then took trains and subways, about two hours door-to-door.
The family highlight at the conference was meeting Takamado-no-miya, an Imperial Prince (we think he is the first cousin of the current Emperor of Japan). Anyway, he seems to be a really nice guy. At the reception he walked around shaking hands and making chit-chat. Emma had gotten all dressed up in her party dress and pearls to meet the Prince. But when he actually came over to say hi, she was speechless. We told the Prince that she has expected him to come in on a white horse; he looked at Emma and apologized by saying, "I'm very sorry, but I left my crown at home."
The following day David was at lunch with the Prince; his English is excellent, apparently from years of tutoring and from spending three years in Canada at Queens' University. (Indeed, his talk at the opening ceremonies was first-rate, in presentation and in quality; he had been up until 3AM the previous evening working on the talk on his laptop, calling his wife, who went to Cambridge, for advice on details about the English.) He talked about topics ranging from vertical displays on laptops to product liability in the U.S. (he's a lawyer by training).
The other somewhat memorable part of the conference occurred during an evening meeting of David's: an earthquake (about 5.0). A number of non-Japanese (and non-Californians) hadn't experienced an earthquake before, so it led to a few ashen faces. It did seem to speed the meeting up, so it wasn't all bad. There is so much bizarre and innovative architecture in Japan that it always feels safer to us to experience earthquakes in older buildings. Junko, a Japanese architect friend of ours, told us about working on the calculations of earthquake resistance and wind shear of a huge ferris wheel (about 120') atop a department store in the main train station in Osaka. These are not your usual planning problems.
Cathy, Emma and Akiva spent most of the time in Kyoto visiting temples and flea markets. We hired a babysitter named Emi (who came one day with her friend named Aki, which made the whole day quite confusing) to help out some. (It turns out Akiva is a surname in Japanese and means "autumn leaf." We were questioned more about his name in Israel than we were in Japan.) We met these babysitters through a mutual American friend who lives in Japan. We met at a train station to chat and treat them to coffee; not only did our friend and the two potential babysitters come, but so did Aki's mother and a women who was the true go-between; everything in Japan takes a lot of negotiation, as well as many negotiators. We all ordered $5 cups of coffee, or so we thought. After a while, we realized that Cathy and David hadn't gotten theirs; apparently the waiter hadn't understood our order of ice-u kohi (although we had pointed at the menu), so he hadn't brought us anything (although he did bring Emma her hoto-cakies). In the rush to fix this, when he brought our ice-u kohi, he spilled it entirely over our friend and the go-between woman. This wasn't totally bad for us, since the store manager came over, apologized, offered to pay for the needed dry cleaning, and then picked up the full tab of over 5000 yen. Don't try this at Starbucks.
In Kyoto, Emma enjoyed the temples in several ways. The first was getting her temple book signed by priests who write the temple's name in calligraphy. She also enjoyed figuring out mazes that are built into many temple gardens. She also liked the rituals, such as washing hands on entry. And she enjoyed collecting charms sold at temples to guard against earthquakes, to improve traffic safety, to ensure good health, and to help with the heavy studying she anticipates in first grade (for this, the charm was a model of the standard red backpack that is used by almost every first-grade girl in the country). An especially memorable temple was Saiho-ji, the Imperial Moss Garden. Sure, everybody in the U.S. tries to get rid of moss, but the Japanese cultivate it. Going to Saiho-ji requires a reservation several days in advance, a long train ride followed by a long taxi ride and a long walk. Then, after paying 3000 yen (over $20), you have the privilege of sitting on your knees for half an hour and copying the Heart Sutra in brush calligraphy. The idea is to clear your mind before entering the garden. Emma loved this. So did Cathy. Saiho-ji is a contrast to most of the temple gardens in Kyoto that are absolutely overrun with tour groups (especially with school age children). It is nice to have the space to appreciate that which is truly beautiful.
There are two major flea markets held in the compounds of large temples in Kyoto each month. Luckily, both were held the week we were there. The flea markets have lots of festival food, such as grilled octopus balls, skewered squid, oden (a stew that includes things like devil's tongue and burdock root), and bean-paste filled pastries shaped like fish. We actually like some of this stuff. The last time Emma was in Japan was when she was just over a year old, and she ate almost everything. This time around, most of the festival food wasn't so attractive to her. Well, she did like the ice cream. In addition to junky schlock (office supplies, cheap toys, etc.), there is a lot of great stuff at Kyoto flea markets. Pottery, used kimono, used swords, military paraphernalia from the other side of WWII, and odds and ends from people's attics. Their junk is our collectible; we doubt the opposite is true, but one never knows (used jeans from the U.S. are extremely valuable in Japan).
Because it was hot and humid in Kyoto, Cathy, Emma, Akiva and babysitter Emi often needed to refresh themselves. Fortunately, there are, officially, 2.4 million vending machines in Japan, about one every twenty feet. Most of these sell soft drinks. And not only are there the usual Coke and Sprite in the vending machines, there are an amazing assortment of hot and cold drinks including Chinese tea, milk tea, green tea, ginseng energy drinks, lemon juice, apple juice, coffee, the old favorite Pocari Sweat, and Emma's favorite C.C. Lemon. Cathy preferred cold, bitter green tea.
To beat the heat in Kyoto, we spent a fair amount of time in department stores. Department stores, as any visitor to Japan knows, are miniature cities, with all sorts of facilities including art museums, restaurants, and grocery stores. It turns out most department stores have breast feeding rooms too. Some are quite elaborate, with baby nutrition centers, private rooms with beautiful views, and small play areas. We often bought lunch and dinner food in department stores and are still missing onigiri, seaweed wrapped rice balls, packed with an ingenious plastic wrapper that keeps the seaweed crispy and out of contact with rice and then peels off with three easy tugs. Perfect for kid lunches, or a low fat fast food snack, we haven't found anything like it in Seattle. Our favorite onigiri filling was smoked salmon, but sour plum, shiso leaf, and fish roe are also popular in Japan. Of course, one of our complaints about Japan is the way everything is overpackaged -- for example, in a department store the onigiri is rice wrapped in seaweed, wrapped in this cool plastic, wrapped in a plastic carton, wrapped neatly in a paper package, put in a plastic bag and fastened with tape. Oh well.
Kyoto was swarming with junior high-aged school children, all dressed in dark blue uniforms with collars and jackets inspired by the British navy, designed to maximize heat retention and discomfort. Several years ago, we'd noticed the girls taking a stab at breaking out of the mold by raising their hemlines an inch or two. This time around, non-conformists made a statement by wearing big socks (similar to but not to be confused with big toast). Big socks are giant white socks that the girls had artfully draped over their shoes to almost touch the ground. Big socks are weird. What was also weird was that 90% of the girls in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka had adopted the same "non-conformist" statement. Hemlines had also crept up a few more inches.
Japan is a country of uniforms. Every department store has its own uniform for elevator and escalator girls; construction workers still wear heavyweight knee length bloomer pants and cloth and rubber tabi toe shoes; taxi drivers still wear white gloves to drive their lace-filled vehicles; and temple priests, supermarket clerks, and city employees all have proscribed clothing. What is remarkable is that even people who don't need to conform in dress also make sure their costumes fit in. Salarymen and office ladies conform, as well as housewives who spend inordinate amounts of time and money on designer clothes. And fashionable young women we saw all seemed to be dressed in huge black platform shoes, black t-shirts and tight black pants or baggy black skirts reinforced with wire.
One of the most challenging aspects of travelling in Japan for Emma was using the bathroom. Luckily, bathrooms are available in most public places in Japan. Unfortunately, many are still the squat and pee variety -- clean and nicely done up in porcelain, but not so easy for a little western girl to use. Most public toilets do not provide paper either, so there is an entire industry built on people standing on streetcorners, handing out free little packs of kleenex with advertising. We never turned down a pack and so were always ready to wipe. Another interesting feature of toilets, mainly those in upscale stores and hotels, is a water noise button you can press, presumably installed to confuse people who are waiting in line after you into thinking you are peeing a river.
Maybe another reason there is a water noise button in bathrooms is that Japan is a country that is rarely quiet. Crosswalk lights are accompanied by musical airs, elevators tell you where you are (those few without elevator girls who never stop talking), historic sites have non-stop babble, and even beautiful parks have P.A. systems that play soothing muzak to get you into a tranquil mood. And then there were the many Japanese people themselves who seemed to be unable to restrain themselves from commenting on our family. An annoying cry of "kawaii" ("Isn't he cute?") greeted Akiva on every train and streetcorner. Several sets of old ladies actually woke him up to tell him how cute he was. And the rest of us seemed to generate our own repetitive names. David is "sugoi ne?" ("Isn't he remarkable?" -- referring to the great beard); Emma is "genki ne?" ("Isn't she energetic?") and Cathy is "jozu ne?" ("So skillful!" -- referring perhaps to her ability to wield chopsticks or to say chopsticks, "hashi", in Japanese).
We decided to take an overnight trip to Koyasan, a temple area in the mountains that we had visited in the past. The trip is complicated -- a subway, three train changes, a cable car and a bus ride bring you to a huge cemetery, famous as the final resting place of Kobodaishi, the 10th century monk who brought Buddhism to Japan from China. The cemetery has paths winding through many miles of monuments and immense redwood trees. Emma enjoyed skipping along the path and making rubbings on paper of family crests on the old tombstones. We stayed overnight at a rambling old Buddhist temple, one of 50 or so in the area that opens its doors to pilgrims. The monk who took care of us at the temple insisted that Emma have a temple meal (we had wanted to just feed Emma rice and vegetables from our meal, since temples charge a lot for food and Emma is not a big eater). But the monk was adamant that Emma have her own food. After a long day of touring, we were ushered into a beautiful tatami room, and sat down on our cushions. The monk brought in several lacquered bowls and trays of rice, tea, and exquisitely prepared vegetarian food for David and Cathy. And then, with a flourish, brought in Emma's meal, also on a lacquered tray, of what we guess is what he thought all American children eat (but which Emma does not), a hamburger.
We picked the busiest possible day to travel to Tokyo. Children's Day is the last day of Golden Week, a week of a couple of unimportant spring holidays strung together (including former Emperor Hirohito's birthday). Everyone takes off work to visit relatives, and, according to the Japan Times, 2.4 million go to festivals (mostly to view azaleas and drink beer), 1.2 million go overseas, and another 174,200 climb mountains. The Japan Times also had an amazing statistic. Since this is the only time many people climb mountains, 23 people died this year during Golden Week in climbing accidents. Anyway, we traveled to Tokyo in a super fast train (the Hikari superexpress), packed with families, salarymen, and mangled climbers.
Our friend Yuko, and her entire family, met us on the train platform in Tokyo Station. The Japanese transportation system is extraordinary. Something like 2000 trains flow through Tokyo Station every day, and all are exactly on time. (The only time we have ever been delayed on a train was once, many years ago, during a typhoon, and once, during this trip, coming home from Yokohama, because of a suicide on the tracks.) Anyway, Yuko knew exactly when and where to meet our train from Osaka, and her family whisked us away to a fancy Japanese restaurant for lunch. (At least five of the friends we saw on this trip decided to entertain us in restaurants instead of their homes. Our friend Setsuko even rented a private dining room with a karaoke machine.) After lunch, we had heard there was a Starbucks Coffee in Tokyo Station, so we enlisted Yuko's family's help to find it. This was necessary because Tokyo Station is huge, with several department stores and hundreds of small shops , in addition to being the transportation hub of the biggest city in the world. We finally found the underground Starbucks, down Rose Lane, and returned many times with friends to introduce them to the pleasure of mocha frappuccinos.
Yuko had kindly made arrangements for us to stay in a weekly mansion, a tiny apartment 20 minutes by bus from Tokyo Station (in this country where people typically commute two or three hours, this was a very convenient location). After we registered at the mansion, we found the grocery store, bought our fat bread to make fat toast in the morning, found the local sento, rolled out our futons, and went to sleep.
David had to spend a few days wearing a tie and visiting companies in Tokyo, but Cathy luckily did not. One day, Cathy and the kids were invited into a kindergarten just a block away from our mansion. Cathy and Emma were given school slippers (no street shoes in school!) and the kindergarten kids gave the tour. Cathy was especially impressed with the teacher who was outside teaching mud painting. Cathy, Emma and Akiva also spent two days visiting some terrific children's museums and halls in Tokyo. There are very few parks and playgrounds in Tokyo; land is just too expensive. Instead, recreation dollars are used to fund municipal children's halls all over Japan that have sports facilities, woodworking shops, science, music, and art programs, with great materials and staff. Emma is ready to come back to Tokyo anytime she can visit a children's hall.
During our stay in the mansion, filled with transients, we were reminded of how safe Japan is. We accidentally left our front door open all day and no one walked off with our money, computer or anything else. Imagine leaving your door open all day in an American hotel. Probably the best indication of how safe Japan is is where you can see children. In Osaka, we saw kids walking home alone from preschool. Chika, one of our six-year-old friends in Nara, informed us that she walks with friends 23 minutes each way to first grade carrying a 10-pound backpack (arduous commutes start early in Japan). One day in Tokyo Station we observed four girls about six years old in adorable school uniforms with little black hats. While we watched, two of them went to a police box (mini-police stations are placed all over big cities) to ask for directions to the bathroom, while the other two stayed with all of their big red school backpacks. Then the whole group trooped off to their train. Imagine this scene in Grand Central Station. It made us a little sad at how protected we need to keep our own kids at home. Safe streets help kids feel competent and independent. By the end of the trip, Emma was delighted to be able to go by herself on the elevator from our 14th floor apartment to the playground.
We have never driven a car in Japan and this trip was no exception. One aspect of the Tokyo transportation system that didn't work for us this time was a terrible lack of escalators and elevators. We ended up timing our ascents and descents to avoid giant crowds swarming towards us as we struggled with stairs and a stroller.
On the trains we were again astonished at how people catnap. Even the friends we traveled with seemed to automatically go into snooze mode when they entered a train -- it may be a good way to cope with crowds and long commutes. (Actually Shige, the adult son of our host, did oversleep a stop when he was supposed to meet us, but lots of cell phone calls solved the problem quickly.) Another reason people may blank out on trains is that many men of all ages use this time to look at porn in newspapers, magazines, and manga comicbooks. It doesn't matter if they are sitting next to their girlfriends, grandmas, or little girls. Of course people have to do something on their two-hour commutes each day. Surprisingly though, it is people reading literature who are most private. Paperback novels are usually wrapped in plain paper so you can't see what someone is reading.
One of Cathy and Emma's favorite ways to spend money in Japan was at print club machines. Think of those little booths in discount stores where you and your friend make faces and get a strip of four black and white photos. The Japanese do it better. For 300 yen (less than $3) Cathy and Emma ducked behind a curtain and into one of hundreds of machines set up in train stations, shopping centers, and game arcades. There, they spent many minutes and many yen choosing backgrounds, captions, and doodling on computer printed stickers, or postcards, or comic book pages with their photographs. Apparently, print club stickers are very popular with teenaged girls who trade them with friends.
We decided to extend our stay for one day in Tokyo so we could go to a sumo match. This was the third time we've gone to the kokugikan (the Tokyo sumo arena), but the first for the kids. Emma loved it, especially when we had lunch at the kokugikan restaurant and two wrestlers picked up her and Akiva as if they were feathers. We went early enough in the day to see junior wrestlers, mostly scrawny guys compared to the huge wrestlers who came on to fight later in the afternoon. We went to the souvenir shop and bought sumo coffee mugs, but passed on sumo playing cards and sumo tea towels. We also ended up in seats quite close to the royal box and saw the entrance of yet another Japanese prince -- this one was the crown prince and his wife.
Just before the final matches between the senior wrestlers at six, we left the kokugikan, took two subways to Tokyo Station, bought some neatly wrapped take-out food from a department store, and got on a shinkansen to Osaka. At Osaka Station, we took a taxi back to our mansion and were home in time to see the highlights of the day's match on TV at 11 on Sumo Digest.
The next day we said farewell to the Torii family who had hosted us in Osaka and went to our friend Diane's house. Diane, her husband Hikaru, and their extended family of many pets live close to the Kansai International Airport. Diane is a good friend and an anthropologist who has lived in Japan for many years. Now she teaches at a small university. Hikaru picked us up at the train station and drove up a road that grew more and more narrow as we neared their neighborhood. Their car just barely squeezed along the street -- even passing a pedestrian was impossible in many spots. In fact, Diane said their landlord has a bigger car and can't visit the house.
Diane's house is actually two traditional-style Japanese houses surrounded by a big garden. Diane and Hikaru and the dogs slept in the newer house and we slept in the tatami room of the older house with a noisy cuckoo clock for company. This house didn't have a bathroom, so to pee in the middle of the night, we had to go through six sets of shoji doors and change shoes three times to get from the old house to the bathroom of the new house. Still, it was really a great place to stay for our last few days. Our hosts were excellent, and the community we were in was almost rural, and very friendly when we took walks. The local children loved to play with Emma and Akiva. On our last night in Japan, Diane and Hikaru invited neighbors over for a barbecue and we spent the night talking, playing and enjoying the warm spring night.
We thought about how different Japan seemed on this trip than it had five years ago. Cathy noticed a big difference in how friendly people were. We had come with a baby before, but people seemed far more outgoing and willing to interact this time. Cathy also felt people were much more willing to try to speak Japanese and try to make sense of what she said. Perhaps this is because there are so many more foreigners living in Japan and appearing on television shows. It now seems in the realm of the possible that a gaijin could speak Japanese.
We also reflected on the many differences and similarities between our time in Israel, and our time in Japan. On the negative side, both places are crowded, noisy, and have a lot of smokers. On the positive side, compared to America, both are places where people work hard to make the best of limited space and resources. In both places also, the potential of people is recognized as an important national resource. The differences lie in the ways the Japanese and Israelis scramble to stay afloat on their little pieces of land. The Japanese have all agreed to a set of common rules -- about language, culture, and daily life. In public, everyone goes about their lives efficiently and privacy is sacred. In Israel, on the other hand, rules are made seemingly only to be debated and broken. And public life is where the debate happens. When we went shopping in Israel, people constantly told us how to keep our baby warm, scolded us for the way he was dressed, and offered opinions about everything we were doing. In Japan, we were pretty much left alone, except for the few people who couldn't resist commenting on how cute we all looked.
This last night in Japan was really the end of our sabbatical, and a time to reflect on what we had learned about ourselves. Between living to Israel, evacuating the country in a hurry, being homeless in Seattle, living with friends, going around the world with an infant and a five-year-old, and traveling in Japan, we learned many lessons. We learned we needed to seize opportunities for friendship and travel when they were offered; to take risks on little things but not to risk too much; to treasure friends at home and abroad; and to enjoy the rare time of traveling together as a family. We had a hard year, but a good year. We hope our years just get better and better. Shalom and sayonara.