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.
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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.
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.
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.