A Strange Path to Kokura
Standing in the visitor line at Narita customs, I noticed something pleasant. The line for residents was entirely Japanese. A thick column of black-haired people wound its way through ropes to the paperwork desks. Imagine that. I found Japanese people in Japan. In America, the lines for residents and visitors look exactly the same. There are Chinese, Japanese, French, Nigerian, Russian, Mexican, Brazilian, and Canadian people intermixed among both lines. There is no such thing as an “American” appearance.
There is, however, a Japanese appearance and I’m not it. I stood in the line set aside for people who didn’t necessarily have black hair and a love of raw fish. It felt wonderful to be a visitor to a pure culture. There would be no Little Tokyo next to Koreatown three blocks from Chinatown and only a wine bottle toss away from Little Italy. I wouldn’t eat sushi while watching somebody at the restaurant next door put salsa on their tostada. I would just be in Japan with Japanese people speaking and writing Japanese.
The thrill of it hit me as I shuffled through the visitor line. I thought back to the unlikely beginnings of this trip, my first to Asia. I’m the author of three money management books called The Neatest Little Guides , published by PenguinPutnam in New York. They’re good books and they provide me with a comfortable living, but business writing has never been my dream.
I wanted to be a novelist since the day I read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on the side of a mountain near my home in Colorado while horses grazed nearby. Soon after, I wrote my first novel for a class assignment in seventh grade. It was a science fiction story that my mother transcribed for me on a manual typewriter using thick pages that she hand-sewed together. I illustrated it myself with colored pencils. The teacher graded it an “A,” and my dream of writing for a living grew stronger.
Only one Japanese book remained in my mind long after I read it, and I’ve wondered if that’s because it too accompanied me on a horseback ride through the Rocky Mountains. Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, could have taken place in any of the valleys near my boyhood home. Even the title in Japanese, Yuki Guni, seemed somehow familiar when spoken into a Colorado winter storm. I remember shoveling snow in the twilight of January, six months after reading the book. I paused to exhale a lungful of mist. The sound of my shoveling dissipated and I looked over the mountain silhouettes. The second line from the novel says that “The earth lay white under the night sky.” I realized then that I am from the snow country. Yuki Guni is not just in Japan, it’s also in Colorado.
To my snow country came a Japanese exchange student named Takayuki Nishida. He lived with my family for half a school year, sleeping in the bedroom next to mine. We owned the basement of my family’s home every night, telling jokes, wrestling, and smuggling nude magazines under cover of darkness. This last nasty habit of ours led to one of the most embarrassing moments of Taka’s life.
He came to me one night looking sheepish. “Jason,” he began. “I think America has rude magazines with pictures. I think the pictures have no fuzzy part.”
I learned that Japanese pornography fuzzes out genitals so the good people of Japan see no evil. As a teenager at the time, I knew exactly what Taka was after. “Oh, you want to see some porno magazines?”
So my friends and I took great fun in finding the lewdest publications on the market. We had older kids buy them from stores. We snuck them from parental collections. We even ordered a couple through the mail using our own money. In short, we did everything all American teenage boys do to see sex. The difference is that we did it for our Japanese friend who could hardly believe his eyes. In time, Taka amassed quite a collection.
One day, my mother did some housecleaning while Taka and I were in school. Because he had never smuggled anything in his life, he was unfamiliar with the fine art of hiding loot in his bedroom. It never occurred to me or my friends that we should show Taka where to stash his loot. Thus, when my mother went to dust his nightstand, she saw breasts and tongues and bottoms sticking from under the clock. Other body parts protruded from beneath pillows and hung over the edge of his desk. She promptly removed every offensive magazine and threw them in the burn can.
A feeble knock came at my door that evening before dinner. “Jason,” Taka said. “Come here.”
We walked to his room and he gestured from bed to nightstand to desk. “All gone.”
“What did you do with them?”
He lowered his face. “I think mother took.”
“Everything?” My first thought was of all the work that had gone into the first-rate collection. Looking at Taka, I saw that his concerns ran much deeper. “Don’t worry,” I said, still not getting it. “We can get you some more.”
“No, Jason. This is so shame. I am almost die.”
A call came from upstairs. “Jason, Taka, time for dinner!”
“I cannot,” he whispered to me. “I just cannot. I will never eat. I cannot see mother. I must hide.” His eyes darted around the room.
“She found the magazines, what makes you think she won’t find you?”
We joined the family for dinner. My mother didn’t say a word or change her behavior, but then again, she didn’t need to. Taka ate two bites all night, never looking up from the floor. Halfway through the meal, I moved his dinner knife over to my plate. No need to tempt him into a hara-kiri suicide just before dessert.
Our pranks continued getting us into trouble. Taka and I arrived home late one night and were met at the door by my father. He was very angry with me. His voice rose and my voice rose until I became so humiliated in front of my friend that I smashed a lamp against the wall. My father threw me toward the stairs, demanding that Taka and I go to our rooms. I swore and threw more objects in my room. Taka tiptoed over to see why I was still making so much noise.
“Why?” Teen rage crackled in my eyes. “Because I hate this house, that’s why. I’m getting the hell out of here. Are you coming with me or not?”
“Yes! Let’s go. We don’t need this crummy place anymore. Just you and me. We’ll find our own place.”
“Uh, Jason, I cannot. This is very bad. Your father say go to rooms.”
“Forget him! We’re out of here.” I pushed Taka’s shoulders toward the basement door.
He turned violently. “Jason, no! You always bad boy.” His eyes narrowed. “When you are man, I think you will be yakuza.”
Even within my rage, I had to laugh. The yakuza are Japanese mafia. I was flattered. Wait until my friends heard that Taka considered me mafia material.
One of our more memorable adventures was camping with my family’s pit bulldog in a sub-zero snowstorm. Despite our winter sleeping bags, tent, and stove, we nearly froze to death. It became so unbearable in the middle of the night that we gave up our pride and jammed all three of ourselves — Japanese, American, and pit bull — into one sleeping bag covered by the remaining two. We shivered the night away, breathing dog breath and praying for sunlight. Just when we thought it could get no worse, the dog started passing gas so profusely that we could barely inhale. Taka kept gasping one word over and over, kitchigai. It means crazy, he explained. I had to agree.
I smiled to myself in line at Narita and quietly said kitchigai. That night, I would see Taka for the first time in twelve years. We had exchanged photos, but hadn’t sat in a room together since we were boys. During those twelve years, I graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in English and wrote manuals for IBM in Silicon Valley. I wrote five novels during evenings and weekends, none of which were accepted for publication. My Neatest Little Guide series enabled me to leave IBM to write for myself full time. That’s when I wrote the original novel about the Year 2000 computer crisis, the book that would eventually bring me to Japan. I called it Y2K — It’s Already Too Late. My agent tried selling it to New York publishers, but none would take it.
I believed in the book, however. The other five that had been rejected did not deserve to be published. They were my practice novels. But this one was different and I could sense that New York had made a mistake. I determined to self-publish the story while my agent, Doris Michaels, sold the foreign rights.
The book became a hit in the United States, rising to the top of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble bookstores. At the 1998 Frankfurt Book Fair, Doris spoke at length with Shoko Kishio, an editor in Shueisha’s translated books division. Shoko was so impressed by the excitement from Doris that she bought the book for Shueisha and published it in Japan in February 1999 under the title Panic Y2K.
Even Taka got in on the fun. I named one of the novel’s Japanese characters Takayuki Nishida in honor of my buddy. His friend came to him at work one day and said, “Taka, you are in this book.”
“No,” Taka replied in characteristic melodrama, “I don’t believe it.”
“Yes, it is true,” his friend said, pointing to the page. Taka read his name and then had to sit down from the excitement. He explained this to me in an email that made it seem as if he’d been chosen to lead Earth’s next mission to Mars.
Panic Y2K sold 30,000 copies in the first month. Shueisha was pleased with the strong sales and invited me to Japan on publicity tour. That’s what led me to the visitor line at Narita airport. My briefcase held the directions I would need to catch a shinkansen bullet train to Kokura station near Fukuoka, where I would see my Japanese friend for the first time in twelve years.
The shinkansen departed at precisely the correct time, something I am not accustomed to. I expected to wait for awhile beside the tracks until the train moseyed its way to the stop at Tokyo Station. But it was there, ready to go when I arrived and it left at the very second it was scheduled to leave.
I, on the other hand, was not operating nearly as well. Armed with Japanese phrase books and notes from a Japanese culture awareness program held for traveling businessmen, I tried talking my way from the airport train stop at Tokyo Station to the correct bullet train that would take me to Kokura.
I stopped an unsuspecting gentleman near a vending machine. He moved slowly after having purchased the tiniest can of juice I had ever seen and was thus easy prey for me. It looked to me like he would finish the entire can in a single swallow. I pounced while there was still time. “Sumimasen,” I said, knowing that means “excuse me.” His eyebrows lifted and he leaned slightly in my direction. “Hai,” he replied.
Uh oh. Now what?
“Um, I’m looking for the shinkansen to Kokura.”
He stared blankly at me, waiting for something intelligible to come out of my mouth.
“Do you speak English?” I tried slowly. It seemed that if I spoke slower he might magically understand this foreign language of mine. And he did! Unfortunately, he could speak only one word back to me and it was said with such force that I knew he meant it: “Sorry.”
Undaunted, I whipped out my Japanese phrase book and began flipping around for some way to ask him for the train to Kokura. My face turned red as he grew impatient. “Train,” I said. Flip, flip, flip. “Terminal?” No, that didn’t help. “Where?” I tried.
His face grimaced in frustration. He swept his arms in a wide motion that seemed to indicate everywhere.
“Here?” I asked. I realized with creeping embarrassment that I had just asked a man in a train station where I could find a train.
He nodded, then showed me his watch. He had to go. “Sorry,” he said again, and walked away.
English, I thought. I need English badly. I picked up my bags and kept walking. The woman at the information booth examined my ticket to point me in the right direction. I trudged through the station, arms clutching my luggage and weakening with every step, until I finally found the sleek bullet train. There was no number on it, however, and the words scrolling across the digital readout were all in Japanese. I went to my assigned seat anyway, just glad to get the heavy bags out of my hands. The train could be en route to Hokkaido for all I cared. On second thought, I decided to make sure I was in the right place.
A woman sat angelically across the aisle. She held a small box on her lap and one of those tiny cans of juice. “Sumimasen,” I said, once again exhausting my entire knowledge of the Japanese language in a single word. “Hai,” she answered with a smile.
Uh oh. Here we go again.
I saw a corner of the phrase book peeking cruelly from the seat pocket in front of me. It seemed to laugh, knowing what I was about to endure. I turned away from it. “Kokura?” I asked, and pointed to the train floor. I hoped she would understand that I was not asking if Kokura was beneath us but, rather, if the train was going to Kokura. She smiled again, a lovely smile, and said “Hai, Kokura.” Then she indicated with her hands that I should stay right where I sat.
“Arrigato,” she corrected. I repeated it and she said “Do itashimashite.” I looked it up in the evil phrase book. It means “You’re welcome.”
We raced south for six hours to Kokura station. I watched the scenery of Japan turn from city to country and back again. For all the talk I’d heard about Japan being so crowded, I was impressed by the acres of open space between towns. Orchards and cherry trees and mountains arranged themselves beside the train tracks. People worked in fields next to trucks as I’ve seen across America’s heartland. Women hung laundry from wires on their apartment porches. Kids rode bicycles. An old woman walked slowly across an intersection while an endless line of cars sat idling patiently.
A line of cars in Japan contains about three times as many vehicles as a line of identical length in America. Why? Because the cars are about one-third the size. I saw cars on the streets that could have just as easily been carried under the driver’s arm as driven around town. I half wondered if they were instant cars just add water and thought they might expand when it rains. Some cars looked like motorcycles with two extra wheels and a roof. I wasn’t sure that I could even fit inside them.
I began to worry. What if Taka drives a car that small? I might need to drape myself across the roof as he drives us back to his home.
The woman across the aisle had finished her box meal and swallowed the single mouthful of juice from her can. A girl paraded through the cabin periodically selling food from a cart. I was too nervous to order from her in front of all the people around me, so I decided to sneak up to the food cabin and pick out something there.
None of the boxed meals showed pictures of their contents. I looked over the counter for some kind of assurance that I wouldn’t be dining on eyeballs or tails or anything still breathing. The girl sparkled with politeness as I stood wondering what to do next. The line of businessmen behind me grew.
“What’s in these?” I asked.
That sent her into a near panic as she flung her hands wildly in front of her face. “No, no,” she said, indicating that she doesn’t speak English. I detected an impatient tapping of feet in line behind me. I pointed at a box, shrugged, then motioned putting food into my mouth. She understood that and produced a three-ring binder full of photos. She began turning the pages and pointing to individual boxes like we were buddies from summer camp reminiscing over a photo album.
The man behind me rubbed his forehead and whispered to the man behind him, “Gaijin.” Foreigner. In this case, a stupid American who couldn’t even choose his own dinner.
I quickly pointed to the photo with the smallest number of gooey substances. I retreated to my seat with the box meal and two tiny cans of juice. The darkening countryside warped past my window as I opened the meal, broke my chopsticks apart, and proceeded to finish everything before the first bite reached my stomach.
I bent close to the container, one eye squinted in amazement. It was a study in miniaturization. Each compartment was barely large enough to hold a golf ball. It occurred to me that the reason Japanese eat with little sticks is the same reason people use tweezers to extract splinters. You can’t fit fingers into the little compartments to grab the food! In America, we would call the arrangement in front of me an appetizer, or even a sample. In Japan, it’s a meal.
Distressing the Japanese
An hour before Kokura, I reviewed my notes from the Japanese culture awareness program. The list of “American habits that distress the Japanese” not only provided a humbling self-inspection, but a lot to remember. Behavior is, after all, second nature. I couldn’t simply turn a switch on the back of my head and enter Japan mode. Here’s a handful of bad American habits from the list:
*Talk too much
*Interrupt other people
*Don’t listen enough
*Are too direct at asking questions, giving opinions, and poking fun
*Do not appreciate the importance of certain formalities in Japan
I could have added another: Are idiots when ordering box meals in public.
The last item about formalities in Japan was particularly important to me. I had studied up on formalities ahead of time and prepared myself for three big ones.
First, give and receive business cards with two hands and an air of gratitude. I would not toss mine at people, nor scribble on theirs in front of them. To further show my respect toward Japan, I had a friend translate my business cards into Japanese and even printed the cover of Panic Y2K on the Japan side of the card. These would serve as my bilingual paper ambassadors. Five hundred sat ready for action inside my briefcase.
Second, always give gifts to people even if the gifts are humble. To that end I carried a half-suitcase of candy and bathing soaps and trinkets from Los Angeles all wrapped in paper from the Disney movie, A Bug’s Life. I wanted the presents to have a distinctly American feel to them. At first, I thought of giving assault rifles and hunting knives to capture Americanism at its finest, but decided on the niceties instead. Every gift was made in the USA.
Third, never ever ever ever walk into somebody’s home wearing shoes. The shoes are always taken off at the doorway. This one is sacred. Only the world’s most insensitive boor would trudge filth into a Japanese home. I pounded the shoe custom into my head by taking my own shoes off inside the doorway of my home for weeks before my trip. I was well-trained and confident that I would impress my Japanese hosts with the most basic of their rituals, removing my shoes before stepping inside their homes.
Taka met me at Kokura station. There he stood after twelve years, looking exactly the same as before. I showed one hand with my little finger held down as if it had been cut off yakuza style. I knew as soon as he laughed that he remembered the night in my family’s basement when he said I would grow up to become a yakuza. Despite his rough English and my nonexistent Japanese, the mutual affection glowed between us. The most important communication requires no words.
Taka’s car was as big as my own, much to my relief. I tried getting in the wrong side, of course, an omen of other inevitable mistakes to come. We arrived at his apartment just past midnight. I assumed his wife and son, Ikuyo and Hiroki, would be asleep. I assumed wrong.
Taka’s front door swung open to reveal a disarmingly innocent woman. There should have been music playing in the background and heavenly light bathing the entryway. Her hands folded politely at waist level in front of her, then opened in greeting. Her eyes crinkled happiness.
Mesmerized, I let myself float toward her. She was the lantern, I was the moth. I moved through the doorway and, in my bewitched state, stepped a shoe onto the tatami mat floor. The smile snapped off her face and she cried out. “Aahhh!” I froze.
“No, Jason!” Taka said fiercely. Ikuyo clutched her hands over her mouth. “Your shoes!” Taka pointed. “Take off. Always take off in house!”
All those weeks of training. All my reading. All the promises I’d made to myself. All for nothing. When the true test arrived, I failed miserably. I felt like explaining. If you hadn’t married such an otherworldly creature who charmed me out of my senses I would have remembered. But what was the use? They wouldn’t have understood.
Attack of the Digital Toilet
Once I successfully transferred from shoes to slippers, the hospitality flowed freely. Ikuyo showed me to my room and read small English phrases to me from a pad of paper. “Nice to meet you,” she said softly. Hypnotized, I said it was nice to finally meet her as well. “You are very kind,” she told me. Yeah, I thought, it was very kind to have brought some American dirt to your home on the bottom of my shoes. Anything else I can do for you tonight?
She presented me with a basket of gifts so thorough that I wondered if she knew I was traveling alone. I crowed over the pair of pajamas, a razor, shaving cream, a toothbrush, toothpaste, towels, washcloths, a comb, soap, shampoo, and at one point I think I saw a partridge in a pear tree. It was as if she expected me to arrive naked on her doorstep.
“Would you like a bath?” Taka asked.
“If you want.”
Well that was quite all right, but Ikuyo had already prepared the bath water for me. She walked me to the bathroom and showed me the deep tub and wall-mounted shower unit. Never wash in the tub, Taka explained. Always wash before getting into the tub. Then why get into the tub at all, I wondered. For relaxation, he said. Ikuyo sometimes spends up to an hour soaking in the tub. Sometimes the two of them soaked together, he added nonchalantly.
No kidding. If I was married to Ikuyo, I would probably spend only one hour per day OUT of the tub.
Ikuyo served snacks to Taka and me at a short table in the living room. We knelt on pillows as she walked back and forth from the kitchen. I required no box meal photos this time. When all the items sat on the table, Ikuyo knelt slightly to the left and behind Taka. Her hands folded onto her lap. Her face turned downward with a smile kept just below the surface as her husband and I filled in details of twelve years gone by on opposite sides of an ocean.
I awoke around 4:00 AM. The many cups of green tea had gone through my system quickly. I tiptoed to the bathroom, careful to close the door before turning on the light. After relieving myself, I went to flush the toilet. A panel of digital buttons faced upward from the side, each labeled with Japanese characters. I couldn’t tell which one would flush the toilet.
I didn’t want to leave waste water for Taka or Ikuyo to see in the morning. I could only imagine their impression of me. First the shoes and then the toilet. How dirty could this American get? I had to try my luck with the buttons. I pushed one colored red.
The toilet made an electronic sound like a robot moving one of its arms. A nozzle emerged from under the back toilet bowl rim and shot a strong stream of water up out of the bowl at the bathroom wall. I put my hand over the stream of water, scattering it in all directions. I managed to direct the main force of the jet into the toilet bowl while frantically pushing other buttons on the console to turn it off. At last, the nozzle stopped squirting and returned to its resting position under the rim.
I surveyed the bathroom. Droplets of water clung to the toilet seat and dripped down the wall. I mopped them up and in the course of drying the side of the toilet happened upon a silver lever. This looked quite familiar. Feeling worse than after the box meal ordering incident, I pushed the lever to flush the toilet, washed my hands, and returned quietly to my bed pad on the tatami mat.
Feeling Fat at Yufuin
Ikuyo’s breakfast was large enough to have brought smiles to an American family. She not only served traditional Japanese breakfast foods, minus anything that could be considered bait, but she also served American foods like bacon, eggs, and toast. I was touched by the gesture and ate my share. I had to move quickly to keep the food from getting into the hands of Taka’s adorable toddler, Hiroki.
The nice part about having Hiroki around is that he and I could communicate. He made baby noises and an occasional word, I did just about the same thing when trying to speak Japanese. He would smile, I would smile. He would turn his head to one side, I would copy him. He repeated words I spoke to him in English with a perfect American accent. Then he’d turn around and repeat words from Ikuyo in a perfect Japanese accent. He’s not even two years old and he’s already bilingual.
Taka and I left for the hot spring resort town of Yufuin later in the morning. As I bent over to put on my shoes, Ikuyo arrived with a shoehorn to make the job easier. She handed Taka his packed bags and handed me another gift. There is something magical about that woman.
I marveled at the ocean inlets and fields of rolling tea plants as we drove into the mountains. We penetrated a dense layer of fog and needed to exit the highway for a small winding road. This would delay our arrival by as much as an hour, Taka said.
“That’s fine with me,” I replied. “I’m enjoying the scenery. The patchy fog makes it even more beautiful.”
He nodded. “Fine with me, too. If no fog, no Taka.”
“What do you mean?”
He reminded me that after bombing Hiroshima, the U.S. dropped the second nuclear bomb in its arsenal on Nagasaki. But that wasn’t the intended target. When the B-29 Bock’s Car left Tinian Island on the morning of August 9, 1945, it flew to Kokura. The thick clouds over Kokura that morning forced the pilot to head toward the backup target of Nagasaki. It too was covered by clouds, but a tiny opening allowed the bomb to fall to earth and kill sixty thousand people. Those sixty thousand would have been in Kokura if not for the weather, and they would have included Taka’s grandparents. Thus, if no fog, no Taka.
He had asked me months prior to my arrival what I would most like to see in Japan. I told him a hot spring and he promised to find the best one on the island of Kyushu. As soon as we came off the dirt road, greeted the hostess, and were shown to our room, I knew he had succeeded.
Our room was big enough for a family of four, making me sad that Ikuyo and Hiroki hadn’t joined us. In the middle sat a low kneeling table with a heater underneath and a skirt around. There was tea available at all times, so we could push our bare legs under the table heat and drink tea to keep our upper bodies warm. The only sounds were our voices and the croaking of frogs outside the paper walls.
After a two-hour meal in the main lodge around a teapot suspended from a fifteen-foot ceiling chain, Taka wanted to visit the springs. I had my choice of rock or wood. I chose wood. We donned our robes and wooden clogs, then clacked our way along the stone path. He turned the sign to say that the private spring was now occupied. We entered and he immediately got naked.
I stood in shock at my designated shelf while he swirled cool water in the near-boiling spring. I didn’t relish the thought of walking stark naked into the water with my friend. I had put on several pounds since we lived together in Colorado. I took a deep breath and reasoned that Taka probably wouldn’t notice.
I opened my robe when he looked back at me. “Come on, Jason!” I returned the robe to my shoulders. “I know,” I said. “Just a minute.” I finally took off the robe and walked nakedly into the spring where my friend whom I had never seen quite this way squatted nude by the water.
“For what?” I asked, fear rising along my neck.
“To get in.”
“Oh, that. Sure.”
We stepped into the water and I immediately stepped back out. “Taka, this is cooking temperature.” He waved me off with his hand and let himself sink slowly into the broth. I followed as calmly as possible, half expecting to smell seasonings in the water. We spent the next couple hours getting in and out of the heat, walking to the rain barrel on the back deck, dumping wooden buckets of cold water on our heads, and exchanging world views. We perched on opposite sides of the spring, legs dangling into the water, when Taka made a rather blunt observation.
“Too bad you become so, mmm…fat.”
He repeated it. There was no expression on his face. He poured another bucket over his head.
“Oh. Yes, it is too bad,” I said. “Thank you for noticing. It’s too bad you’ve become so, mmm…ugly.” I kept my face expressionless and poured a bucket over my head.
“Yes, extremely. It’s a wonder Ikuyo lets you out in public.”
“Hmm. Maybe you only a little bit fat.”
“Maybe you’re only a little bit ugly.”
Not as Long as I’d Like
Ikuyo and Hiroki were delighted to have us back home the next day. The royal treatment began at the doorway as soon as we arrived. Ikuyo paraded food back and forth from the kitchen again, until we ordered sushi to be delivered that night. It was my last evening with the Nishida family. I went to bed feeling sad.
At Kokura station, Taka wrote a note in Japanese that I would use to find my way from Tokyo station to the Imperial Hotel, thereby saving me the humiliation of using the phrase book with strangers. While he worked on the note, Ikuyo took me to a small shop to buy me a lunch of her choosing. There was no line of impatient businessmen behind us. She carefully picked what she knew I would like and paid for it. I tried paying myself but she would not let me.
The train arrived. Ikuyo handed me a slim envelope and kissed me on the cheek. I hugged Taka goodbye and kissed Hiroki on the forehead. I had barely stepped onto the shinkansen when it pulled away from the station. I waved from the window until I could no longer see my friends.
In minutes, the train was out of the city. I slumped down in my seat by the window to open Ikuyo’s letter. Warmed outside by the sunshine and inside by that morning’s homemade breakfast, I opened the unsealed envelope and extracted the most carefully penned letter ever put to paper. Her penmanship was so exact that I thought for a moment she had typed it on a computer using a handwriting font.
The letter thanked me for visiting her family. She said she was nervous to meet me because Taka told her that I am a famous writer in America. “But,” she wrote in broken English, “you was gentle and friendship, wonderful man.” She apologized for her small home and for not being able to do anything for me. “I regret,” she concluded.
She had just shown me three perfect days in her home. I couldn’t have been better taken care of or more content on my train ride back to Tokyo. Yet, her letter expressed only a desire to have done more for me.
One line stood out from the rest of the letter. She wrote, “You couldn’t as long as like, could you?”
I looked out the window. Gentle mountains like those of Yufuin rose away from the tracks. On my lap, I felt the weight of the lunch Ikuyo chose for me. I heard Hiroki’s high-pitched laughter in my mind and the note from Taka crinkled in my pocket. “No, Ikuyo,” I whispered toward the passing mountains, “I couldn’t.”
Look insideThe Kelly Letter
This is “A” stuff. I appreciate it completely. What a terrific memoir! In a short piece I feel I know Taka, and Ikuyo and Hiroki come to life as well. I detect the supreme fascination for Japan, too. I know this feeling. I recall it through what you have written. Bravo.
Thank you, Greg!
A wonderful piece. I feel like I know your friend and his family, and my desire to visit Japan has only grown. Well done.
You should visit, Charles. You won’t regret it. I’ve lived in Japan for more than nine years now and it’s still as fascinating each day as the first time I toured and made all the mistakes in this article. What a wonderful country!
Wanted to let you know that I love this piece, I read it when I need a smile. I send the link to this whenever anyone asks me about the Socks for Japan project.
I have a question that I’m posting here mostly because I’d be surprised if no one else ever asked: Did you eventually ever explain to Taka-san and his family that even though you trained to take your shoes off when you first came to his house, why you didn’t? It’s awesome that you even tried to prepare for the cultural differences, you deserve some kudos for that!
I did try explaining, Leslie, but my Japanese was so bad it didn’t work. By the time I spoke it well enough to cover all the bases, the situation was long forgotten by them. Their son Hiroki, a toddler in this article, is now a junior-high school student — almost caught up to the age when I first met his father in Colorado!
This is awesome… I went to Japan about a year ago to meet my fiance’s family and I had a lot of the same type of situations as you did… lol.
The toilet, the food on the train, the shoes at the door, the bathtub, how caring most of the people were, the beauty of the island, tiny cars etc…
Really glad that you wrote this up as it can really take people there even if they never get a chance to experience it for themselves.
Thank you, Tom! I’m glad the article takes people there even if they’ve never been. They should go, though.
Everybody interested in Japan should see Lost in Translation with Bill Murray for a glimpse of the mysterious, slightly lonely atmosphere of Tokyo on the first visit. I’m a regular at the New York Grill at the Shinjuku Park Hyatt featured in the film. Love the place!
My husband (Canadian) forwarded this article to me. I chuckled a lot as I was reading.
Thank you for introducing Japanese culture with such sincerity and affection.
Living 25 years away from Japan, I appreciate very much the way you describe the culture. Not to mention I love reading a good story. Next time I stop at my favourite book store, your book will be in my basket.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. What a delightful story.
I am happy to be back. You were an amazing influence on me as an investor. I was just small time and I am going to get back into it. I am retired and on a fixed income so it will have to start off small. But I love the stock market and the ebb and flow of business trends.
I just ordered The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing: 2013 Edition. Can’t wait to start reading again.
I feel you are a friend,
Thank you, Tom! It’s good to have you back. Jason
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