Jun 07

Reminiscences and Lessons of Japan, Part 1

In Brief—Reminiscences of Japan and the experiences of a couple of westerners in a different culture. Photos, too. Part 1 of 2.


IMPORTANT NOTE!   To liven up my blog, I am adding photos to selected blog pieces on occasion. This is the first. Thanks to Pinterest, you will get to enjoy some of the sights I experienced in Japan. To add depth, I’ve written comments below each photo.

Click here to be transported back in time to Japan.

If you enjoy what you see and read, tell your friends or share the blog on your favorite social site.



Strangers in a Different Land—

As the curtain goes down on a life of mostly “ups,” the memories flood in. If this is what they mean about your life flashing before your eyes, mine seems to be in slow-motion.

It was the autumn of 1975. Entranced by ceramics and by Japanese raku, Alison and I were whisked from America to Japan, a wholly different culture. The one-month visit was specially arranged by my friend Mike and his lovely Japanese wife, Yoshiko, who lived in Tokyo. Alison was the bright young woman who taught me more about myself than I ever realized during our time together.


In their typical neighborhood home, we slept on futons on the floor and admired the miniature garden in the center of the home. The addresses of the houses depended on when they were built, unlike the western world. The narrow streets were decorated with autumn browns, yellows and muted reds. The weather was mild and occasionally rainy during our stay.

As tourists, we visited the many shrines and parks scattered around Tokyo. The beautiful parks were well-kept and immaculate, tended by older volunteers who swept and groomed them to perfection. No trash on the ground, no vagrant leaves. The Japanese are considerably more attentive to avoiding littering than those of us from western societies.

Mike warned us to be on the lookout for groups of young girls who would swarm us to take our pictures and have us sign their autograph books. Thus alerted, I always checked for groups of girls. Sure enough, though no teenager had been in sight moments before, we were suddenly surrounded by enthusiastic girls waving their autograph books. Where they came from, I’ll never know. We finally satisfied the giggling group, having learned our lesson.

Beneath the city, the efficient subways were crowded with black-haired commuters. Without fail, we were able to look over the shorter Japanese commuters who managed to ignore us…except for the uninhibited lap children who looked at us as if we had three heads.

Servicing those commuters was an underground world of restaurants and shops. Returning to a particularly good restaurant was nearly impossible for us. Showing a receipt to a shopkeeper, I asked for directions to the restaurant. Rather than point the way, he left his shop unattended to guide us to the restaurant. Impressed by such courtesy, I attempted to tip him. Mistake. The shopkeeper looked distressed, politely refused the tip and melted into the crowd. Japanese courtesy is ingrained.

Aboveground Tokyo is not just temples and parks—although there are many of those—the city is made up of sections that cater to particular interests. Some areas sell seasonal sports equipment, while others clothe modern citizens in the latest Parisian fashions. Still others fill the local streets with music and the metallic sounds of pachinko parlors wooing habitués with the promise of a big win. On many streets, we saw small parlors selling soba noodles in broth. The slurps of their customers were heard before we passed them. It’s the Japanese version of fast-food. Crowded intersections found well-clad pedestrians hurrying past made-up and beautifully-coifed women mincing along in traditional kimonos and geta footwear, some of whom were the fast-disappearing geisha entertainers.

And then there is the enormous Imperial Palace surrounded by its placid moat where swans glide past luxurious greenery that would be the envy of western horticulturists. Built on the site of the old Edo Castle, it has been rebuilt since World War II and was a marvel of ornate beauty.

Beautiful Nikko—

North of Tokyo, beautiful Nikko is home to the elaborate and colorfully decorated Tokugawa Shrine housing the mausoleum of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the powerful Shogun whose regime ruled Japan for 250 years until 1868. Several buildings and pagodas are considered national treasures. It’s there one will find the famous three monkeys that illustrate, hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.Three Wise Monkeys

With a palpable sense of total tranquility, I sat on a bench in the heavily forested shrine area amid the towering cryptomeria cedar trees leading up to Tokugawa’s mausoleum. Time seemed to dissolve away. I felt a sense of loss on having to depart. No explanation. It’s as if I belonged. That feeling will be with me as long as I live.

Learning from Banura-san—

Mike and Yoshiko arranged for us to live for three or four days with master potter Shiro Banura outside of Kyoto. The language barrier was minimized by one of Banura-san’s apprentices who had lived in Yokosuka, home of the American naval base. It is illustrative of a key difference between America and Japan that Banura-san became a master cook before he became a potter so he would understand the relationship between food and the pieces he would make. Evidence of this was that he prepared a superb six-course meal our first night.

Vegetables, rice and tea greeted us each morning as we ate breakfast with the apprentices. It’s not juice, toast and eggs, but the standard Japanese morning meal. Dinners were with Banura-san and his family in the main house. Japanese meals, not American. With vegetable and fish a regular part of the diet, the only rotund people to be seen are the sumo wrestlers.

In the studio, Banura-san would throw a huge mound of local clay and isolate smaller amounts to make his distinctive bowls. It’s called “throwing off the hump.” In an hour, he threw more bowls than I could throw in a day. The ease with which he did this showed how little I knew. When he had finished, I was allowed to sit at his wheel and throw my meager bowls. To say it was humbling is understating it. I still have a photo of us watching Banura-san at work.

Early one misty morning we all went into the enfolding forest to pick mushrooms that became a part of the evening meal. While Banura-san and his apprentices found numerous tasty mushrooms, my contribution was inevitably those of a poisonous variety. Even here in Sweden, I was a failure at picking mushrooms.

So ends Part 1 of my reminiscences. Part 2 will cover other scenes and experiences of our trip. If you want elaboration on anything, just ask. Also, you will find the added photos amplifying the written words. Be sure to click on the highlighted words at the beginning of this piece.

Check out Part 2 next week.


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  1. I love this! It’s so evocative. I can visualize the scenes you describe. Thank you!

      • Don Bay on June 7, 2015 at 19:33

      Thanks for the positive comment. The images of that trip will be with me until I shuffle off this mortal coil. I hope readers will like the photos as much as I did.

  2. I remember when you left for that trip, Don. Thanks for sharing the details.

    Experience is the scenery along the road of life. We are the collective total of those experiences. All to often the twists and turns hold our focus rather than the sights along the way. No time should be wasted worrying about where the road ultimately takes us. Just absorb the experience along the road.

    • Brenda Frye on June 7, 2015 at 21:32

    Oh, what a magnificent summary of your trip. It rought back many memories for me as well as we visited some of those sites. I did ot know that is where thge 3 monkeys originated. You learn something new every day. You express yourself so well. When you write I feel like I am there.

      • Don Bay on June 8, 2015 at 07:16

      Thanks for the warm words. That trip, all the beautiful sights and lessons, will live in my memory for as long as I have in this vale of tears and joys. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If true, I hope the pictures of the sights I saw will add to your day as much as they did for mine.

    • Donna Boe on June 8, 2015 at 04:21

    Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories, Don. And your pictures are marvelous! I recognized several of the places we visited when we lived in Japan in the mid 50s, although I’m sure that much had changed 20 years later when you were there. Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura were all places we experienced and enjoyed as well as Tokyo, where we lived.

    We were fortunate to return about 8 years ago, and while our land lord was still there (he has since died), our little street of Sumiyoshi-cho is now part of a big commercial section of Tokyo and even has a subway stop there. However, Sakura’s house where we lived, is unchanged – a little island of tradition in the middle of a commercial center.

    We, of course, did not have the wonderful experience you had of spending time with a professional potter and learning from him. I really look forward to some photos of your Japanese creations.


      • Don Bay on June 8, 2015 at 07:28

      Your first time in Japan, though it still bore the scars of war, added to the informed person you are today. Your return trip to Japan no doubt aroused feelings of loss along with the pleasure of being in that beautiful country and with old friends. Assembling photos of a few of the sights I saw during my month there brought back fresh memories that will live as long as I do. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

      Stay tuned for those pots that are just around the corner.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Don. Beautiful pictures. My experience in Japan as part of the army of occupation in the late 50s was totally different. Remote village overwhelmed by huge air force base, remote radar sites, long flights in a small aircraft to get to those sites. Japanese people treated pretty shabbily. Nice to see the other side.

      • Don Bay on June 14, 2015 at 15:40

      Fortunately, things had changed by the time I was there in 1975. Today, it’s hard to say whether the changes have been to the good.

      I know that Okinawa is catching it in the shorts over America’s strong desire to build a new base on the Japanese island. To say that the American forces are oppressive is to understate it. Unfortunately, the militaristic Japanese prime minister, Abe, supports America’s position in the face of overwhelming opposition from the people. Ain’t political pressure wonderful!

    • Roy Okutani on June 14, 2015 at 15:44

    Mahalo Don! Ewa told me about you writing about your Japan trip. I’ve never been but have it in my heart to visit the country my family is from. What you have presented here is exactly what I am interested in experiencing.

      • Don Bay on June 15, 2015 at 10:14

      Mahalo, Roy. I definitely recommend a trip to Japan. The blog two-parter covers the places that most impressed me, so you can’t go wrong visiting those places. Nikko is a “must-see” and Kyoto is superb as well.Tokyo is a city that has it all: shrines, parks, the Imperial Palace and a variety of different areas. A Japan trip is the experience of a lifetime. Do it!

    • Linda on June 14, 2015 at 19:05

    “Time seemed to dissolve away. I felt a sense of loss on having to depart. No explanation. It’s as if I belonged. That feeling will be with me as long as I live.” I love this. It moves me.

      • Don Bay on June 15, 2015 at 10:20

      Thanks for the kind words. The tranquility and beauty of Nikko will live in memory as long as I exist. It moved me, too. A once in a lifetime experience.

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