From 1997 to 1998 I worked in Japan as an English teacher, first in a place called Tsuchiura
(about 60 kilometres south-east of Tokyo) and then in central Tokyo. My dearest friends were, without a doubt, made when I worked in Tsuchiura. Amongst them are Yuko & Yuji
( “Nashville”) Mizushima, the parents of my dear friend Sayuri
, who now lives with her husband, Tony, and little boy Kai (with Alyssa on the way!) in Hawaii. Sayuri was one of the Japanese staff at Nova, the English school I worked at, and Tony worked there as a teacher. Some of you may recall that I was in their bridal party in Hawaii, in 2002, just after my own marriage in New York (both happened on the same trip). All of these people constitute yet another one of my special overseas families and yes, we do manage to stay in touch.
We would be arriving in Japan on the evening of the 10th August (Alex’s birthday) and flying out on the 16th. Yes, I know, that is so little time! Unfortunately, we did not have much choice here. We were wait-listed for ages on the Paris to Hong Kong flight (which we had to take in order to proceed on to Japan), but it was fully booked out. Not much leeway on the other side either, as our ticket expires on the 18th August. Decisions, decisions! Alex and I had figured that the easiest way out of this was to do a “whirlwind tour” of Japan, and make it back to Hong Kong, before the expiration date of our one-year ticket. Remember that theoretically we still had Vietnam to Bangkok and Bangkok to Melbourne sectors “to use” which had to be included within that time frame. For all of that to take place, we could leave Japan no later than the 16th. So six days it would be!
I had called Yuko from Morocco a couple of weeks earlier, and told her of our exact plans, and she was so excited. She immediately told us that she and Yuji (Nashville San) would pick us up from Narita Airport. Needless to say, we would be staying at “Bed & Breakfast Mizushima”. Takayuki Okada was one of my old (and favourite!) students in Tsuchiura and we have also remained good friends and in touch over the years. He too would be there to greet us at the airport. It was so good to see the three of them on our exit, and there were hugs all around.
I cannot even begin to tell you how hot and sticky it was during our short sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun. Imagine hot (as in 40 degrees celsius) combined with extremely high humidity. I felt like I was perpetually wet. If I was 20 kilos lighter, I would have considered entering a few wet t-shirt competitions. Of course, I jest, but I am sure you are conjuring up the picture I wish to portray!
On the night of our arrival, we were driven back to Yuko and Yuji’s. On this trip I truly understood why it was so important to worship the air-conditioning god, who would be our saving grace several times over in so few days! If you think air-con is useless (and I too have indeed muttered these words on several occasions), come to Japan in August! Blessed be the air-con god! Before arriving home, we stopped at a place called Coco’s , where we also met Taka (Takayuki), where we had a little snack. It was lovely just to sit down and relax, and once again I felt like no time had passed between us. Whilst it was 5 years since Alex and I had seen Yuko and Yuji, I had not seen Taka since I left Japan 10 years ago. It was after midnight when we finally parted company.
Yuko and Yuji live in Otto-Minami, only kilometres from Tsuchiura, in a typical Japanese house. Most houses in Japan usually have at least one or two rooms with tatami
mats (originally made from woven straw) on the floor, and many people sleep on mattresses on the floor called futons
, which although appear to be quite thin, are surprisingly comfortable. Alex and I got to experience both the tatami mats as well as the futons at “Bed & Breakfast Mizushima”. The air-con god also played a big role in our room. Again we felt blessed, as the only other time I have felt humidity quite this bad, was when I lived in Japan 10 years ago. It is all devouring, and makes you feel listless.
We had been spoilt in both France and Germany, and this continued in Japan. On a serious note here, I feel so incredibly blessed to have such wonderful and special friends, many of whom have become my family. I personally do not believe at all in the saying that blood is thicker than water. You can choose your friends but not your family! For me, many of these friends have become my “family of choice”, which they have achieved by merit and by choice, and not merely by “chance”. Visiting the many members of my extended family, and which have subsequently become part of Alex’s, has been the highlight of our journey. I can close my eyes and recall so many fabulous times with so many of these amazing people!
After a great night’s sleep we awoke to the buffet breakfast of the century! Yuko truly gave a new twist to the saying, “putting on a spread”! It was indeed such a spread, that you could barely see the tablecloth – miso soup
(seaweed sheets), natto
(fermented soya beans), bread, pastries, fruit (including blueberries from the garden), vegetables, omelet, yoghurt, tea, coffee……our eyes ogled! Where did we start? And Yuko was the perfect hostess, encouraging us to try everything. I gave it my best shot, but there is only so much that one can fit into “her” stomach. Now, referring to “his” stomach (please step in Alex), a boy’s gotta do what a boy’s gotta do. It was a pleasure to watch Alex going hammer ‘n’ tongs and trying everything, and an even greater pleasure watching the complete and utter look of satisfaction on his face. And no, I am NOT jealous that Alex has lost 7 kilos on this trip DESPITE the amount he sometimes eats! Genuinely, Japanese food is sooooooooooooooo good. The flavours are sublime yet tasty, and the Japanese really do understand the concept that you do not have to drench everything in either fat or sugar for it to taste good!
From what Yuko cooked up at home, which was always a culinary delight, both she and Nashville (the Nashville story is coming up soon) spoiled us rotten with constantly taking us out for meals. We ate, amongst many other things, soba noodles, tempura
(all traditional Japanese dishes), and even some mighty fine Italian (it was right up there, let me tell you). I told you, those Italians pop up everywhere! I must be honest, despite the fact that I did not have very high expectations of good Italian food in Japan, I was proved very wrong! What we had was excellent!
Yuko and Nashville also took us out on a couple of day trips. The countryside around where they live in beautiful, with lots of Shinto shrines dotting the place. We also visited the Tamatsukuri Rainbow Tower, which ascends 60 metres above above Lake Kasumigaura, which has a superb 360 degree view. Not only can you see Lake Kasumigaura (part of which I used to go walking or jogging around when I lived in Tsuchiura) and Ibaraki’s famous Mt Tsukuba, but on a clear day, you can see Mt Fuji too! (By the way, I climbed Mt Fuji all the way to the top with Tony, Sayuri’s husband 10 years ago).
We also spent a full day with Taka, who drove us around to see some more of the beautiful countryside around Tsuchiura, some old friends as well as new, as well as checking out some of my “old turf”. We passed by Nova in Tsuchiura, where I used to work as an English teacher, as well as the apartment blocks close by where I used to live! So many memories! I had forgotten so much, but the memories came rushing back, quickly and furiously! Alex could only stare at me as I stared at those apartment blocks! A big slab of concrete? Perhaps to some, but this multi-level concrete slab was yet another one of the many reminders of what an extraordinary life I have lived, and indeed continue to live. Whilst I do believe in destiny, I also believe that each person creates her or his own. I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the destiny which I had created for myself. And suddenly I felt both very humbled and very proud by what I had and continue to be able to see in this lifetime! My passion for the world, its people and their cultures is innate. I now simply accept the fact that I will never get “rid” of the travel bug. This is the one bug that my system is over “fighting with”, and has learnt to live harmoniously with. It lives in my bloodstream, my heart and my soul, and it does not affect my health. Sometimes it lies dormant, and at other times it vociferously springs back to life, but it is always there!
Taka took us to see Norio, another one of my ex-Nova students from Tsuchiura. He is now married to Yukako, and they have a little baby boy called Yasuke. We had a tranquil couple of hours together, sipping on ice-cold green tea, then coffee as well as Japanese sweets. Later, we all went to Norio’s ranch, as he and his wife are into horse riding and have a few horses of their own. The Japanese countryside is so picturesque, and for some reason the energy so serene.
Later in the day, Taka took us to visit some other friends, the Nitta family. Hotaka and his wife, Mitsuko, are journalists, and they have two beautiful and creative children (a dying breed!), Ayuko (their daughter) and Toya (their son). They live in the countryside of Ishioka, in a gorgeous and traditional Japanese house. An intelligent and vibrant couple, they have shunned “the modern Japanese life” for the simple life, which Hotaka has
also written a book about…….maybe Paris (Hilton) should take a leaf out of it! Ha, ha! Their car is not new (uncommon in Japan!), they do not have mobile phones (what, are they freaks?), they do not have a television and the young children do not own Play Stations or X-boxes (is that what they are called, as I am not at all clued up on these things). Our visit with the family was based around Mitsuko pulling out a big map, and having us physically draw on and explain to them all the countries we had visited. The children were not agitated or fidgety at all and asked us lots of questions about our travels. Toya even pulled out a book on animals, and asked Alex to how him all the animals we had seen on our travels. I was flabbergasted! And when we left, both children gave us gifts of origami
(traditional Japanese paper folding) which they had personally made . I would be hard pressed to be able to pick even a couple of kids in Australia who might perhaps act in this manner, or do something so imaginative! (Laura and Kylie, you have done a brilliant job with your girls Isabella and Marley. I believe that they would do something like this.Congratulations!)
Although time was limited, we had to visit Tokyo. I mean, how could you possibly come to Japan and not see it? We caught a train in, and spent one long and excessively hot day there, and least managed to see some of it. We got off at Ueno station, and again, the memories came flooding back. Ueno park
, close by, had been another former stomping ground, and during the Sakura
, or Cherry Blossom season it looks spectacular. As prior mentioned, I was grateful to the air-con god, who greeted us each time we stepped into a station, shop, or enclosed space. The heat outside was stifling and exhausting. Whilst we were in Japan, Tokyo reached its peak highest temperature for that summer, which was was over 43 degrees celsius plus an obscenely high humidity factor. Walking outside was like being in a sauna!
We also spent several hours in Akihabar
a (a Tokyo suburb) with shops selling everything from mobile
phones, to computers, to gadgets that I could not even put a name to. Alex, being a bit of a computer and electronics buff, was in utopia! I was over it by the second or third shop, but hey, it’s all about give and take! I seriously could not cope with all those fluorescent lights, they made me feel druggy and drowsy. Towards the end, even the searing heat of the outdoors was better than those lights. As Alex continued to look at computers and the likes, I tried to “entertain myself” by people watching and observing. I wondered if we were on the brink of an apocalypse, because people were buying as if the world was about to end! Where does it stop? Who has created this “unnecessary need”?
As for the publicity and advertisements…….I asked myself the same question that I had asked myself a million times over whilst living in Japan 10 years ago, ” WHY are the majority of models (in advertisements) caucasian, and IF they are Asian, WHY are they white, and WHY do their eyes look ALMOST like ours?”. This is craziness! Not only are we fed the lie that if we do not buy until we drop (literally!) that we are useless, but people across the world are being told that if they are not caucasian that they just do not cut it! Who, when and why decided this? I think that Asian people are beautiful exactly the way they are! Whatever happened to loving yourself for who you are? I expect and suspect that this must be an extremely difficult task to undertake, when everything around points to the very fact that you are NOT good enough as you are! I am horrified by the number of “whitening creams” (you heard that correctly!), that exist not only in Japan, but in the Asian market…….yes, pop some moisturiser on your face, and get that added bonus of whitening your skin! I am not willing to name the brands, but they include many, from the cheaper to the more costly. I repeat, we are being sold a lie!
I should mention that we also went through Shinjuku (another Tokyo suburb)….more shopping, shops, people, advertising and lies being sold! Where does the madness stop? When do we stop believing that a Gucci handbag or an obscenely priced Lacoste t-shirt is not the ultimate expression of success, or personal freedom, for that matter? And just when you thought the cola “fight” was was over; first there was Coke, then Pepsi, followed by Diet (or Light, depending on your country) Coke and then Diet (or Light) Pepsi. But of course, we then have the whole “my brand’s better then your brand “deal happening, so Pepsi follows with Pepsi Max. Not to be outdone, out comes Coke with its new Coke Zero bandanna! What’s next? Yeh that…….Pepsi “Nex”? (Does this even exist in Australia yet?) Give me a break! Who buys (physically as well as metaphorically) this crap (again, physically as well as metaphorically)!? Same shit (similar, anyway), different brand. Who just got sucked in big time?
Heavy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (That’s what Neil from the Young Ones would have said!) Now onto something lighter. The story of Nashville San. Whilst I was working in Tsuchiura some 10 years ago, Sayuri (who worked at Nova, and is Yuko and Yuji’s daughter) organised a dinner at her house. We all had a great night, and a great spread was put on, with the expected fantastic food and beverages. At first, we were all a little surprised when Yuji came out with a western style shirt, full-on western boots, jeans, ranch hat, guitar, followed by his singing a country and western repertoire, and in English! Brilliant! Encore, encore! He then took us upstairs to show us “the collection”, which included more boots, jeans, shirts and other “western” paraphenalia than you could poke a stick at. He and Yuko had also visited the USA several times, including all of the prime country and westen sites, and he had photos to prove it! In Japanese, the word San is used like Mr or Ms (Mrs or Miss) in English, the difference being that they nearly always use it between each other, as a sign of respect. They do not expect this of foreigners, as they know that our customs are different. On that night, however, I decided that “Nashville San” was a name that suited Yuji perfectly, as it was both playful and respectful. And so, the name Nashville San was both born and coined, and this is what he has gone by eversince. Even his wife and son-in-law, Tony, call him by this name!
We managed to catch up with Taka one more time, and meet his lovely elderly mother too. She was so cute! You will have to take my word on this, as I do not have a picture of her. She told me that she did not like the way she looked on that day! Taka was our translator, as his mum spoke no English, and my Japanese (shamefully, after living there for almost a year) does not go beyond a few basic words. Let’s say that it is non-existant! Saying goodbye to Taka, was also sad, but I know that we will always remain friends.
No sooner had we arrived, than it was time to leave. As we were leaving early on the morning of the 9th (August), Yuko and Nashville San had graciously organised for us to stay at a hotel virtually on the grounds of Narita Airport, where they insisted on driving us the night before. Again, I felt so blessed to have such amazing friends! Not only did they drive us there, but they also took us out for dinner, yet again! This time we went to a sushi bar, you know, where all the little bits and pieces pass you by on conveyor belt type contraption, and you can grab to your heart’s content, until you are full…….and keep going, even if you are are full, just because you can and the taste is so good ! I simply must mention the fact that powdered Japanese green tea is yummy, here or elsewhere.
After dinner, we were dropped off at Narita Airport Rest House
, where it was time to say goodbye. We hugged and waved, and hugged again, and thanked Yuko and Nashville San for our memorable few days in Japan. But we will see each other again soon, as they will be visiting Australia next year. Alex and I are looking forward to showing them our beautiful country, as well as returning some of the outstanding hospitality they showed us.
The Rest House was very convenient and comfortable, and I highly recommend it if you have an early morning flight. Needless to say, “getting to the airport” the next morning was a breeze.
August 16th – bound for Hong Kong, and only two days off having completed one year of travelling! Where will we be and what will we do when the ticket expires?