Saturday, October 13, 2012

Our World Tour - Japan

As our plane climbed into the morning skies over Texas the sun was already down in the land of our destination.  Of the three places that our summer travels would eventually take us, we had finished the first one … the “foreign country” of Texas to see our son and new daughter-in-law.  We were now headed to Japan to visit the home of our second son and his family.

My wife is an insightful lady.  She knew that we would be staying in a small house for three weeks with three active granddaughters at the same time our old bodies were recovering from jetlag as we coped with the loss of 14 hours.  So she arranged to have a hotel room for the first two nights.
Since this plush facility was only a five minute walk from our son’s house we could visit for a while then retire when we felt like it. 

Thanks to our daughter-in-law, our hotel room felt more like a home away from home than a strange room in a foreign country.  In it she placed fresh flowers, familiar snacks and drinks in the small refrigerator, and a couple of large color-pencil drawings from our granddaughters saying things like “I love you so so so so so much.”  On the bathrobes which the hotel carefully laid on the foot of each single bed was a folded origami crane.  Did you catch the words “single beds”?  We felt like Rob and Laura Petrie on their honeymoon.  (For those of you who are culturally deprived, Rob and Laura were the stars of a 1960’s black and white television sit-com called “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and it always showed this married couple in twin beds.)

One of the main reasons we decided to visit Japan this summer was to meet our new granddaughter who was born September of last year.  We met Yulia for the first time the morning after we arrived.  She resembled a porcelain doll with her Japanese style hat strapped on her head.  She smiled when she saw us.  We discovered over the next few weeks that one of her most attractive characteristics is this ready smile combined with one of the most laid back personalities I have ever seen in a baby.

When I wanted to have a fun afternoon I simply placed the baby in a stroller and walked to Socia – the nearby grocery store/mall – and sit under the large clock in the entry way while my wife did some shopping.  For the next hour I would get a kick out of doting grandmothers and young mothers and smiling junior high girls who stopped to ga-ga at the baby. 

After a couple of nights at the hotel we stayed at our son’s house.  They graciously gave us their bedroom and moved into the other bedroom with their girls.  Many houses are small in Japan and usually built up not out.  This house had a small living room, kitchen, and bathroom downstairs … and two bedrooms upstairs.  But our daughter-in-law has a way of organizing every one of those 900 square feet to get maximum use for their family of five.

When we visit our children we are on our summer break and are out of a normal routine.  But they are not.  So we fit in with their schedules.  In Japan the school year begins in April, so the two older girls went to school each day and our son had to work.  This was a good thing.  We were able to see how they live on a day-to-day basis.
It also afforded an unusual opportunity to be an everyday part of a very different culture.  Allow me to describe one experience in detail so you can observe the differences.  Our daughter-in-law talked with the principal of the nearby school where our oldest granddaughter is attending third grade.  She arranged for us to visit a class on three separate days to do a presentation.  In Japan every student takes “English” as a class each year so they are interested to hear from native speakers … especially in the northern island of Hokkaido where fewer “gaijin” travel.  (“Gaijin” – the Japanese equivalent for “gringo”.)

We pieced together an impromptu lesson about the differences between Japanese and American and Dominican culture in food, people, and houses.  Our daughter-in-law put together a quick power point and we took turns presenting.  At the end we showed them how to greet an American if they ever saw one … extend a strong hand shake, make eye contact, and say, “Glad to meet you.”  From all I’ve learned about the Japanese culture, this simple exercise is very difficult to do.  In Japan it is a sign of respect to look down and to bow from a distance rather than touching someone during a greeting
When the third grade students entered the room, all thirty of them sat on the floor in neat rows of five.  At the teacher’s command they stood, bowed, and greeted us with some Japanese phrase in unison, and sat down again facing me.  As I walked from side to side typical of a lecturing teacher, they rotated their bodies and faces to follow me like sun flowers follow the path of the sun.  Combined with the expression of awe on their faces and the elevated stage for the teacher in front of the room, it gave me an interesting illusion of power.

 Many of these children have probably not seen a white foreigner up close before.  In the hallway some stopped to stare and then put their hands to their mouths to giggle as they scampered away.  Just before our presentation I looked for the nearest bathroom.  When I found one I noticed that six boys had filed in behind me in a group as if they had purchased tickets for the matinee feature.
After the presentation we were asked to eat with the class.  They eat together in a classroom rather than in a specific lunch room.  Food and utensils were wheeled in on a cart, and designated students with white sanitary masks over their mouths and scarves on their heads dished out the food to each child.  Children sat six at a table all waiting to eat until everyone was served.  When the teacher clapped her hands, the students put their hands together as if praying, said a small phrase with a dip of the head, and began to eat.  Everyone had their own special apron with a kerchief over the head.  The food on this day was spinach salad, meatballs, sticky rice, and sea food stew with tofu.

My son explained that the Japanese are very formal and traditional when you first meet.  But as you share a social event such as eating, they become more relaxed.  I observed this with these eight-year-old children.  After lunch many of them crowded around me as I tried to type some notes in my IPhone journal.  One small girl ran her fingers through the hair on my arm as she tried to talk with me.  Several hugged me when I tried to leave.  Maybe I missed my calling when I decided to teach high school.

Before we went to the spacious room on the fourth floor to give our presentation (remember – up not out in Japan) we were ushered into the principal’s office.  In front of his large CEO-style desk was a low table surrounded by couches.  A greying distinguished gentleman came from behind the desk and gestured with a bow that we be seated.  A white-haired, meek looking woman quietly placed a small cup of coffee in front of each of us and then disappeared as quickly as she came in.  We then engaged in awkward small talk (translated by my son)as we waited for him to take the first sip of coffee.  This social tradition is so predictable that it has a name and my son studied it before he went to live in Japan the first time.

I hope this detailed description has helped to illustrate some cultural differences.  For those of my readers that have not been to Japan let me add a few more observations that we had during our stay.  This difference in cultures is indeed quite striking.

1.        Many people wear white gauze masks giving them the appearance that they have just finished assisting the doctor in by-pass surgery.  The reason apparently has something to do with allergies or colds at various seasons of the year.

2.       Many people transition from one task to another by running.  For example, from the door of the bakery to their parked bicycle, or from the ticket line to the luggage claim.  This could be partly the reason that we could not find many overweight people except those on television during the sumo wrestling tournament that was going on while we were there.

3.       Layers of privacy to help live in confined spaces is obviously a valued commodity.  So an observer will notice toilet stalls that come all the way to the floor and a toilet that has a sound of running water activated automatically when you sit down assumedly to mask other embarrassing sounds.  When you eat in a public place you see their mouths move in conversation but you can’t hear them.

4.       Bowing people was also a curious sight to us.  They bow low when they meet or say goodbye.  Flight attendants bow to a crowd as they leave the terminal to board a bus which takes them to a waiting plane on the runway.  The bus monitor bows deeply as she delivers our kindergarten granddaughter to us at the bus stop.  While nine-month-old children in the USA are learning to wave good bye with only their hands, our granddaughter in Japan has learned to automatically dip her head at the same time as when she waves.

5.       We stayed in the large city of Sapporo, population of almost two million; and we were there eight days before we heard our first traffic beep … and that was from a bus!  The traffic was orderly and quiet for the most part near where we stayed.  When they stop at a stop light, each car leaves a car length space between them.  The difference between this and the Dominican Republic is actually humorous.

The word “kobito” in Japanese means “little people”.  Supposedly there is folklore of little people who live unseen by humans that are responsible for things hard to understand … such as something missing when you know good and well that you put it in a certain place.  Every culture has something similar, I suppose, such as fairies or leprechauns.  We watched an animated movie called Arrietty which was a pleasant and harmless journey into this fantasy world where a kobito family lived under the house of some “Human Beans”.

Anyway, a clever Japanese entrepreneur picked up this idea and began to list in a book the names of various kobitos and what they look like.  Some live in the forest, some on farms, etc.  He draws a picture of each one.  In the movie, all were cute.  His are all ugly.  He describes what they do and how to trap one if you wanted.  It is a reference book every bit as detailed as the Star Trek encyclopedia.  And, of course, they are marketed as tiny dolls … “Be sure to collect all 150!” … that sort of thing.

My son took some pictures of their family on a recent road trip and through digital magic inserted images of some of these little critters into some of the pictures … such as one peeking in a car window while they were looking the other way.  Such is my middle son’s sense of humor, but I wonder.  In a land that has a religion based on spirits which inhabit inanimate objects in nature, do the girls actually believe they exist?  So every time I saw a small statured Japanese person wearing a mask I exclaimed out loud, “Hey, I just saw a kobito.”  And they would say, “Oh, grandpa!”
                                            (Can you find the Kobito in the potted plant?)
My son has a schedule that gives him Sunday and Monday off from work.  These were the times we scheduled family events during our stay.  One time they took us to the "Surprise Donkey Restaurant" to order a "Happy Frog" meal (huh?).  Another time we visited Odori Park in central Sapporo to take family pictures and look at the breath-taking flowers. On one side of the park a large anti-nuclear demonstration marched by, and on the other side a young woman in a flowered poodle skirt was singing “Do the Locomotion” in English in a talent contest. 

During two of the weekends we had a chance to attend church with them.  We were also privileged to eat at the home of their pastor one evening.

On the weekend of our 39th wedding anniversary they drove us to a nearby volcanic lake called Lake Shikotsu where they had secretly reserved a room for us at a resort hotel for an evening. 
 They wanted us to experience a Japanese anniversary fling.  After walking next to the lake with the family and helping us to register with a man in a suit who knelt before us with juice, they left us alone until the next day.  That evening we had an 8-course Japanese/French dinner with so many silver utensils that the waiter had to explain which to use for what course.  He bowed and served each plate with an elegant grace that made us think we were part of a movie. 

Afterwards we soaked in a private tub filled with natural mineral water from the local hot springs while listening to a symphony of frogs croaking outside the room.  This romantic setting came with a room that had … you guessed it … twin beds!  Maybe it goes back to our discussion about layers of privacy in a crowded country.
The following morning we put on our little dress coats that looked like we were going to a karate tournament, and then walked to a nearby room next to a fluorescently colored Japanese maple tree to have breakfast.  We looked over the well-supplied table of strange looking buffet items.  My wife grabbed a boiled egg only to find out later when she tried to peel it that it was a raw egg.  We ate well that morning, except we found few items that looked familiar.

The family outings were memorable but most of our time was spent blending into their daily routine.  One such activity included a kindergarten program at the school where our granddaughter attends.  Hundreds of children and doting parents dressed in traditional yukatas gathered in the outdoor court yard of the school.  In an organized manner they herded the children together to take class pictures, hear a welcoming speech from the school director, listen to a story enacted by teachers in costumes, and watch the children perform a traditional dance in a circle to the beat of a drum.  Just before going home each child received a bag of treats along with a make-shift yo-yo created from a balloon partly filled with water attached to a rubber band.

                                                         (Can you find Waldo?) 
One afternoon we went shopping at JR Station … an eleven-story mall (think up not out).  Each day we walked our kindergartener granddaughter to the bus for school in the morning and then picked her up in the afternoon.  We went to the grocery store to help shop and get bottled water which is provided for free from a purifier machine.  I learned to love ramen and hate miso soup.  And we played lots of Dominican Republic monopoly (a game we brought with us) and Crazy 8.  These girls would get up early in the morning, knock on our bedroom door, and say, “There is 30 minutes before school, and so can you play Crazy 8 with us?”

My wife reminded me that grand children love to do things with us for only a few short years.  Soon they will be older and it will be different, so we need to enjoy it while we can.  It was this aspect of the trip that we treasured the most but hard to put into words.

On July 9 we said goodbye to the land of musical voices and melodic interludes over airport speakers that sound like the beginning of the hymn “Under His Wings”.  Carol had to say goodbye to the favorite part of her day when the bells of the school sounded all over the whole neighborhood as it plays the song “Going Home” right at 5:00 each evening.  Goodbye to chopsticks, and driving on the left side of the road, and abacas classes.  Goodbye to Lilia and her written five-point schedule on how I should celebrate my birthday.  Goodbye to Amelie and her comments like “Grandpa, why you so funny?  Bananas on cereal is Dominican ‘Public’ not Japanese!”  Goodbye to Yulia and her ability to sleep on her mom’s back anywhere anytime. 

As Lilia observed on that last day, “I don’t like airports … it is where you say goodbye.”

For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.           Psalm  78:5-7


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