Journey for Mieko

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When Fumiko’s sister Mieko passed away on August 4, 2002 and was cremated on August 9, her family asked if some of her ashes could be mailed back to Japan so that she could be placed adjacent to her father’s ashes. Fumiko and I immediately said that we would not allow Mieko’s ashes to go through the mails like a piece of junk mail. We promised that we would carry Mieko’s ashes back to Japan ourselves. I am happy to report that we kept our promise.

We put a two week rush on our passports. Once we got them we began making preparations for our journey to Japan.

OUR JOURNEY FOR MIEKO

By Ron Sayles

with Fumiko Sayles

Our journey began when, after very little sleep, we got out of bed at 1:20 on the morning of Friday September 27, 2002. Our plane was scheduled to leave Chicago’s O’Hare airport at noon. After a taxi ride and a bus ride we arrived at O’Hare about 8 a.m., so we had ample time to sit and reflect. I was apprehensive and more than a little nervous thinking about my meeting with Fumiko’s family for the first time. We have been married since January 15, 1957 and the only member of Fumiko’s family that I have ever met was Mieko. What would her family think of me, would they like me? I could only hope so.

After checking in and getting our boarding passes we had to walk through metal detectors. We had to remove any change or metal objects that we might have on our person before walking through. I walked through with no problem. When Fumiko walked through every bell and whistle they had sounded. She was segregated to another area to be hand searched. She had to remove her shoes and her belt. What it turned out to be was the brass buttons on her blazer and the metal clasps on her shoes. We laughed about it later, but at the moment it was not very funny. We understand the need for tight security after 9-11, but maybe, just maybe they were a little over zealous.

The flight took off from O’Hare at noon as advertised. It was an uncomfortable flight, I had the middle seat and there was no place to put my legs.  It was not entirely uneventful, however. Once we got to Tokyo, because of traffic congestion on the ground, we had to circle Narita airport for about a half an hour before we could land. That added an extra half hour to an already over long flight. When we finally did land at 3:35 p.m., it as  Saturday September 28th, and it was raining.

When we got our plane tickets through I.A.C.E. travel agent in Chicago, we got a package called The Family Service Plan which JAL (Japan Air Lines) offered to us at no extra cost. It turned out to be a real blessing. When we landed at Narita we were given preferential treatment by the flight attendants because we were members of The Family Service Plan. Because of their help we were guided through immigration with no problems. They told us what to do, what forms to fill out and where to go. Figuratively they held our hand every step of the way.

We were met by our grand niece Masami Sanpey and her husband Chota. As we walked out into the lobby area I saw this sign that read, RON AND FUMIKO SAYLES, but I didn’t need it. I saw this most engaging, beautiful young lady standing there and I just knew that this had to be our grand niece, I was right.

It was about a two and a half hour drive from Tokyo’s Narita airport to Ota-City where we would be staying. For the next four weeks we would be living at the home of our niece Teruko Kubota and her husband Kiyoshi. Fumiko’s sister Sakae Soeda also lived there.

When we finally arrived in Ota-City, Sakae, Teruko and Kiyoshi were waiting for us. By the time we had finished talking. laughing and crying, Fumiko and I had been up for thirty-three hours, and that was on very little sleep the night before. We looked ragged and tired, we were ragged and tired, but we were also very happy. We were in Japan, the first leg of our journey was complete, we were now in a position to keep the promise that we had made, to put Mieko’s ashes adjacent to her father’s ashes.

That night I learned one thing. The language of love is much stronger than the language of language. I did not understand much of what anyone said, they did not understand me, but that did not matter, the love was there.

Sakae told us that she had made special arrangements for Sunday the sixth of October. A special ceremony for Mieko would be held at the Buddhist Temple in Ota-City where the Soeda family plot is. Things were moving ever closer to us completing our promise.

Sunday September 29th was our first full day in Japan. That afternoon most of the family came to the house to greet Fumiko and to meet and greet me. They were all so wonderful. I have never experienced such love as the love in this family. They knew that I was a stranger in a strange land, but they all made me feel so welcome. I love them all and I want to introduce them now.

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I will start with Sakae Soeda the elder sister to both Mieko and Fumiko. She is a widow and is the matriarch of the family. She has since died. Sakae had four daughters and two sons. I will list them in the order of their birth.

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Daughter 1: Hisako Soeda. Hisako contacted polio at the age of three or four months and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

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Son 1: Shoichiro Soeda. Shoichiro is married to Tsuta. They have two daughters, Mina Nozawa and Miki. We did not meet either one of their daughters.

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Daughter 2: Teruko Kubota. Teruko is married to Kiyoshi. They have two daughters, Masami Sanpey who is married to Chota and Mie Kato who is married to Kiichi.

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Daughter 3: Kyoko Kamatsuzaki. Kyoko is divorced. She has a daughter Yuri and a son Kazyuki, neither of whom we met.

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Son 2: Shigeru Soeda. Shigeru is married to Hatsumi. They have no children, but they have about forty-five dogs, they raise them.

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Daughter 4 and the baby of the family, Sachiko Asano. Sachiko is married to Akira. They have one daughter, Eri.

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There were two other important members of the Kubota family are their dogs. Hachi (foreground) a 13 year old Shiba whom we adopted as our temporary pet and Taro (background) a 4 year old Black Labrador.

Both dogs have passed away, Hachi on our 50th wedding anniversary.

The first couple of days were spent getting acclimated to our surroundings and sitting through typhoon 21. We were not in the typhoon’s direct path, but we were close enough to get a lot of wind and a lot of rain. The hardest hit area was Hokkaido where several large electric towers were blown over.

Kyoko took us on our first major outing. She took us to the Ashikaga Kunita Porcelain Museum in Sano. It is a most interesting museum and there are many beautiful and old pieces. Some of the porcelain dates back a couple of thousand years. The setting of the museum is also outstanding. Kind of tucked away in the mountains with views that takes ones breath away.

On Thursday October the third, Tsuta took us to Nikko. Nikko is famous for the Rin-No-Ji, (Ji in Japanese means temple) which was constructed in 766. It is here that is the final resting place of Ieyasu Tokogawa. It is he that James Clavell patterned his character Toranaga after in his best selling novel SHOGUN, which became a highly rated television movie.

The next day, Friday October the fourth Teruko took Fumiko and myself to a ruined castle just outside of Ota-City. Located in the mountains, it offers a beautiful panoramic view of Ota-City. Of course while all this is going on I was snapping pictures like crazy. This will become a common occurrence for every day that I am in Japan. My camera became an extension of me. It is like I didn’t feel dressed unless I had my camera with me.

On Saturday October the fifth we began to wind down so that we could get on with the reason for our trip. We had been having fun, but always in the back of our minds was the fact that we had not done what we had come to do. 

Along with Kyoko we went to the Soeda family plot and washed the grave stone and cleaned up around the area. This was in preparation for the next days proceedings. I was a little nervous thinking about it. The only religious services that I have ever attended were Christian, and not very many of them.

Sunday October sixth turned out to be a glorious day, the sun was shining and it was mild. The ceremony itself was very moving. The women kneeled on one side of the alter and the men kneeled on the other side. Being occidental the Monk offered me a chair, but I declined. I wanted to kneel like the rest. As hard as I tried, I just could not kneel Japanese style, so I sat on the floor with my legs crossed. Even at that my legs fell asleep. The ceremony lasted about a half an hour. The monk chanted sutras throughout. The nature of the ceremony was to give Mieko another name to enter the next world with. I didn’t understand everything so I can’t elaborate. Suffice it to say though, it was very moving.

When the ceremony was over we all walked to the Soeda family plot. Here Mieko’s ashes were placed adjacent to her father’s. We each were given lighted incense, we then took turns one by one praying and placing the incense in a receptacle by the grave.

All of us then repaired to Kyoko’s karaoke bar and partied in Mieko’s honor. A picture of Mieko was set on the bar and in front of the picture was placed a drink and  some food. Actually quite poignant. Although there was merriment going on, none of us forgot the reason why we were there. Before the fun started Shoichiro, as the eldest son, gave a short speech. At the time I did not know what he said, but Fumiko told me later that he wished Mieko happiness in her new world and that all of us would be joining her soon.

The end of the day brought a sense of satisfaction to Fumiko and myself. We had done what we had come to do. The rest of the family also appreciated what we had done. There was sadness, but at the same time there was joy and happiness.

The next day Fumiko and I were dropped off in the middle of Ota-City by Teruko. It was old Ota, the city that Fumiko knew as a teenager growing up. We spent four hours just wandering around with Fumiko giving me insights to her teen years. The first thing was a stop at her favorite book store. As she said, “it was much changed, but it was still there.” We saw the middle school that she attended and the house that she once lived in. Fumiko even pointed out the class room she once used when going to school. The house where she once lived still had the Soeda name on the post outside of the house.

As the next day dawned I was in great anticipation, we were going to Sendai. Sendai the city of Fumiko’s birth and early years.

The day did not start off well. We had one of those moments that you laugh about later, but at the time it was perfectly awful. We took a local train to Oyama to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai. We are non smokers so we wanted a non smoking car. When the train stopped, the car in front of us was a smoking car. As we were making our way down to the non smoking car, the doors of the train closed and away it sped, with us still standing on the platform. We panicked, we didn’t know what to do. At every train station in Japan there is a station master, that was a good place to start. We told him what had just transpired. He explained that another train going to Sendai would be along in 18 minutes, the only difference being that this train made some stops along the way, the train that we missed was an express. At this point, who cared. In the long run all that we lost was about a half an hour. After a not too promising start to the day, it had ended favorably. When we got to Sendai it was to late to do much of anything other than secure our hotel room and have some dinner. I would have to wait until the next day to see Fumiko’s old neighborhood.

The next day burst forth with much anxiety on my part. We started the day by visiting Zuihoden, the final resting place of Daté Masamuné. Daté lived from 1567 to 1636. It was he who built the first castle in Sendai assuring Sendai’s place in history. All that remains of that castle is a brick rampart. Their is a statue of Daté and where it sits commands a great view of Sendai.

After lunch we took a cab to the area of Fumiko’s birthplace. Upon leaving the cab, we walked about twenty minutes to where Fumiko thought her property should be. She didn’t recognize anything so she asked a delightful elderly lady with glasses about a half an inch thick if she knew where the Soeda’s might have lived. She pointed to a house not more than twenty feet from where we stood and said that the only Soeda she knew of lived there. Fumiko looked it over and said, “no, that’s not it.” She thanked the lady and we went on our way to continue the search. We walked for another two and a half hours without finding Fumiko’s birth place. It wasn’t all unsuccessful, however. In our walking we did come across the school that Fumiko attended when she was a child. Although there had been many additions to the school over the years, she recognized the part of the school that she attended. I was very excited for what I had seen, but still we had not found her birthplace. Fumiko said the we should give it one more try and if we couldn’t find anything we would give up.

While searching Fumiko kept saying that her old property was between two small rivers. She had not seen anyplace like that. She thought it best to go back to where we first encountered the elderly lady and start over. When we got there, Fumiko looked and looked. There was an older house, a newer house and an apartment building. She looked at the older house and it was as if a light clicked on, she recognized it. It was empty and a little run down, but she recognized it. The newer house next to it had the name Soeda on the post box. She knocked on the door and talked to its inhabitant. It turned out that the apartment building next to them was the old Soeda property. This was the location where Fumiko was born. An earthquake had destroyed the Soeda’s original home and an apartment building was put up in its place. And the real climax? It was between two small rivers. As we walked around Fumiko pointed out the bridge that she fell from, the home of a deaf friend that she once knew, the grocery store that she used to go to and the streets that she once played on. The real irony was, two and a half hours ago we were on this very spot. Fumiko summed it up most eloquently when she said, “I guess I should have listened to the old lady.” All that aside, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

We were scheduled to return to Ota the next day at noon, but before that Fumiko’s cousin Chiieko Hidekaza and her husband Isawa paid us a visit at the hotel. Fumiko had called her the night before to say that we were in town. It was nice meeting another member of Fumiko’s family. Since we met them early and the train did leave until noon, we did a little shopping with them.

As I awoke the next day, it was October twelfth, my sixty-sixth birthday. It was hard for me to comprehend that here I was in Japan celebrating number sixty-six. Maybe celebrating is not the proper word, for no one but Fumiko and myself knew that it was the date of my birth. She did not want me to tell anyone because she did not want her family to make a fuss. Had they known they certainly would have. I respected her wishes and did not tell anyone.

Teruko took Fumiko, Sakae and myself to the Ashikaga Temple just outside of Ota. It was very stimulating and as with most temples, very old. Japan is full of ancient temples. They are all interesting in their own right. It is intriguing to think that Japan was a thriving country more than a thousand years before we were “discovered.”

Our trek to Mount Fuji the next day was long, arduous and FUN! It was a five hour drive to get there. We had obento (brown bag) with us, so it was not bad. Besides Fumiko and myself there was Akira (the driver), Shigeru, Sakae, Hatsumi, Kyoko and Sachiko. One might say, Mount Fuji, old stuff. Not so! All the pictures that one sees of Mount Fuji are of the front side of the mountain, we were taken to the back side, a sight very few foreigners see. I will have to admit that both sides are memorable.

It was here that I met my greatest culinary challenge. We stopped at a splendid Japanese restaurant located at the foot of Mount Fuji. I had Japanese noodles, that was not the challenge. The challenge came in the form of raw horse and raw venison. Sachiko looked and me and uttered one word, but what a word it was, “challenge?” I looked at her, picked up my fork (I am not to adept with chopsticks) skewed a slice of raw horse, dipped it in wasabi sauce (horseradish sauce) and soy sauce and ate it. They were all watching. I took another slice of raw horse, dipped it in wasabi and soy sauce and ate that piece. They did not applaud or anything like that, but I could see the approval in their eyes. I also had a slice of raw venison. For those who keep track, I liked raw horse better than raw deer. In point of fact I had two more slices of raw horse.

On the way back we stopped at a vineyard in Kofu and picked some of the most gorgeous grapes one is likely to see anywhere. And they tasted as good as they looked. When we stopped, the ubiquitous green tea came out and a lot of samples. The vineyard was run by three charming people. I can’t say for sure, but I think that the two women were sisters and the man was one of their husbands.

We had a day of rest before heading to Hiroshima, our next big excursion. I have a  Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis in history. My special interest is World War II so you can imagine that I was anticipating this trip nearly as much as I had anticipated the trip to Sendai. I was not disappointed.

Our first day there we decided to take a bus tour of the city. We saw such things as the Shukkei-en Garden. This is a garden which was laid out in 1620 in imitation of a garden in Hangchow, China (Sung Dynasty). In this garden will be found several trees that survived the Atomic Bomb blast. We also saw Ri-jo (Castle of the Carp). It was first built in 1593, but was destroyed by the bomb blast. It was rebuilt in 1958. We also visited the Atomic Bomb Dome, but we decided that this historical site deserved more of our attention, so we decided that we would return the next day to see it as it should be seen, slow, leisurely and giving it much contemplation. As you know, bus tours just give highlights. We wanted more then just highlights of this important event. All this was in the morning, the afternoon was spent on Miyajima. In Japanese jima means island, so it would be incorrect to say Miyajima Island, although you may see it that way. In effect if you say it that way you are saying Miya Island Island. Much like Mount Fuji. Yama means mountain so it must be either Mount Fuji or Fujiyama, not Mount Fujiyama. If you say it that way you are saying Mount Fuji Mount. I digress, back to Miyajima.

This is where the famous Itsukushima Shrine is. This shrine was first built in 811. The shrine, along with its famous Torii (the largest in Japan) are built in the bay. The buildings are on stilts so that when the tide comes in it looks as though everything is floating. The tide was not in the day that we were there, nonetheless that did not diminish the beauty.

Something of interest about Miyajima. From time immemorial this was a sacred island on which, until the Meiji Restoration, neither births nor deaths could take place and from which dogs were banned. Dogs are still not permitted, though this is  now mainly for the protection of the many fallow deer on the island; and there is still no cemetery on Miyajima, so the burials must take place at Ono on the mainland, and even then the relatives of the dead must perform rites of purification before they may return to the “pure” island of Miya.

After a good nights rest we embarked on the highlight of our expedition to  Hiroshima, the site of the beginning of the atomic age. I try to make my writings light and humorous but, what I am about to write is neither light nor humorous. As I write this I have a lump in my throat. I understand that there are people who do not share my view. In fact a few years ago I heard one person say that the Japanese deserved what they got and that it was right to drop the bomb. Please tell me, if you can, who deserves 200,000 dead? The majority of the dead were innocent civilians. Who deserves nearly 100 per cent of their city being destroyed in an instant. No, no one deserves that, enemy or not. Growing up I had always thought that the use of the Atomic Bomb was extreme. After my first stay in Japan in the 1950s, I got to know several Japanese people, in particular of course Fumiko. My conviction strengthened. After my most recent stay, I am convinced beyond a doubt that we, as a country, made a horrible mistake when we dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, we compounded that mistake when we dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.

It had always been a dream of mine to visit either Nagasaki or Hiroshima, never for a moment thinking that it would happen. Well, here I was, along with Fumiko, standing on the site that the first Atomic Bomb used in anger was dropped. I don’t know what Fumiko’s reaction was. We were both deep in our own thoughts, I shivered uncontrollably.

On the site stands a building with a dome. On August 6, 1945 at 8:14 in the morning it was called the Hiroshima Prefecture Industry Promotion Hall, at 8:15 of the same morning it became the Atomic Bomb Dome. This dome is a testament of man’s inhumanity to man. The instant the bomb exploded several thousand buildings were flattened and 200,000 people perished, the lucky ones quickly; the unlucky lingered. Hiroshima, fringed by mountains forming a natural amphitheater, seethed and fumed.

What stands at the site now is a cenotaph shaped like an ancient tomb which holds the names of all the dead who perished because of the bomb. A prayer on the Cenotaph reads, “Repose ye in Peace, for the error shall not be repeated.” Also there is the Peace Memorial Park (Heiwa Kinen Koen) The skeleton of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Domu). An eternal flame that will flicker until all war is banished from the earth. What chance is there of that ever happening? There is also a huge grave where the remains of over 70,000 victims lay. Of that 70,000 only 814 have been identified and are waiting to be claimed. The reason that no one is claiming them is because their families also perished in the bomb blast and there is no one left too claim them. In front of this grave I bowed my head, said a small prayer and then apologized to the people entombed there for what my country had done, it was ruthless and barbaric.

On the same grounds is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Heiwa Kinen Shiryokan). In this museum are charts, graphs, photos and wax sculptures of the living dead crawling through a ghostly city. One exhibit that moved me was an exhibit of a shadow of a one time person sitting on the steps of a bank, waiting for the bank to open. When the blast occurred, the person just disappeared leaving behind a shadow. That’s all, just a shadow. Looking at this exhibition, tears welled up in my eyes. There are several artifacts such as melted glass, a person’s finger, melted rock, twisted steel and various other things to show the power of the bomb. This all happened the instant the bomb exploded. Today, people are still dying from the bomb due to the radiation it gave off.

While gazing upon the Atomic Bomb Dome, a group of five students approached both Fumiko and myself. The leader of the group, a boy of about thirteen, said in halting, but effective English, “are you American?” I replied that, yes we did come from America. He proceeded to ask both Fumiko and myself some questions. He asked  what we thought about the bomb, among other things. He then handed us a book that resembled a scrapbook. In it we printed our name and that we were from America. There was a space for comments. In the comments area I printed, NO MORE HIROSHIMAS. Although not original, it was heartfelt. They then took our picture.

It seems as though this was a class project that they were assigned. We were only to happy to help. I do have one regret, however, I did not get their address and we didn’t give them ours. It would have been nice to maintain contact with these children and it would have been fun to know how the class project turned out. 

Someone once said that an international law should be passed that says the first official act of any head of state should be a solitary pilgrimage to Hiroshima. On this I agree whole heartily. Maybe if they could see the destruction war does, they would think twice before launching one.

One final note. While going through the museum I saw a lady crying. It is that kind of museum. This museum is not meant to be uplifting, it is meant to show the ravages of war, to get you thinking. To get you thinking about the uselessness of war. I was very moved and as I said, I am now convinced that our country made a horrible mistake in dropping the bombs.

After getting back to Ota-City we had one more surprise in store for us. The family got together and gave us an all expense paid two days in Tokyo, hotel and bus tour included. What a pleasant surprise. I never for a moment thought the we would see Tokyo, other then passing through it a couple of times.

It rained the whole two days that we were in Tokyo. This was the only bad weather we encountered on any of our trips. In spite of the rain, we had a great time. On day one we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum. This museum takes you from ancient Edo to modern Tokyo. For those who do not know, Edo was the name for Tokyo until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It is a first class museum and I wish that we could have spent more time there, but the time that we did spend there was incredible. The second day was our tour. We saw the Tokyo Tower, an ancient Tea Ceremony, had lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel, visited the Imperial Palace grounds and had a cruise up Tokyo’s main river, the Sumida. In spite of the rain it was a fine day.

Probably the most interesting of our stops was at the Imperial Palace grounds. Fumiko and I were there in 1956 and it was interesting to see the changes that had taken place since that time. The grounds of course changed very little, but the buildings surrounding the grounds are all new. Nothing was as we remembered it. I guess after forty-five years that is to be expected.

When we got home from Tokyo we had only two days left in Japan. It had gone by so swiftly, it was hard to believe that we had to pack to get ready to go home. Before that happened however, there was one more thing that we had to do. We had to say good bye to Hisako. As previously mentioned, Hisako contacted polio when just an infant so she lives in a home for the handicapped. Kyoko drove Sakae, Fumiko and me to the home where we had a very tearful good bye.

On our way to visiting Hisako, we stopped one more time at the temple to say  goodbye to Mieko. We said a small prayer and wished her all the best in her new environment.

On our last night in Japan, a going away party was held for Fumiko and me. There were some tears, but there was mostly fun. I could not drink too much because, I had to get up very early the next morning, but Shigeru said that was ok, he would drink mine for me. And you know what? he did! Every time a drink was poured for me, I gave it to him to drink. By the end of the evening he was feeling very little pain. We were given several nice parting gifts.

The Next morning we had to catch a 5:05 a.m. bus to Narita. Of course we couldn’t sleep just thinking of the past four weeks. What a wonderful four weeks they were. What a revelation to me to find out that I have such a wonderful family. Sakae could not come with us to the bus station. When I said good bye to her at the house I hugged her hard and she hugged me just as hard. I got into the car crying like a baby. I was going to miss her very much. Who knew then that it would be the last time I would see her.

Kiyoshi drove us to the Ota-City bus depot so that we could catch the bus to Narita airport. When we arrived Shoichiro and Tsuta were there to see us off. Teruko and her daughter Mie came with us so that they could also see us off. Again, more tears as we boarded the plane for home. While in Japan I have never cried so much in my life and except for the tears in Hiroshima they were all tears of joy. I had discovered the love of a family.

Because of our Family Service Plan that I previously mentioned we were taken aboard the plane first and given our seats before anyone else had boarded. If any one is thinking of going to Japan, fly JAL and get the Family Service Plan. When we landed we did not have to go through the regular exit, there was a special exit for us to go through because of, need I mention it, the Family Service Plan. We were put through customs right away and we were home by 11:00 a.m. One more thing, because of the time zones we landed three hours before we took off.

One more thought before I give some insights to Japanese living. I know that war does strange things to people. It makes them do things that they normally wouldn't dream of doing. Knowing the Japanese as I do, and really being a part of them, I cannot and never will understand how we could have fought such a vicious war against them. They are the kindest most gracious people on the face of this earth. My prayer is for world peace so that nothing like World War II will ever happen again.

Some observations on Japanese life, at least the part of Japanese life that I was able to observe. Some of my observations may be skewed because of our presence, but I don’t think all that much.

First, and most important, there are some differences, but the similarities far out distance the differences. The Japanese are a kind, gentle, helpful, and wonderful people. This is especially true of my family. They cry when they are hurt, they laugh when something is funny, they have fun, does that sound different? They have plans for the future, they love their children, does that sound different? They want the good life, does that sound different.

This is a society that bows when meeting someone If you are an occidental they will shake your hand, but it is better if you bow. I like it, it shows respect. 

Much to my dismay, this is a smoking society. Sometimes it seems as if every man, woman and child smoke. I know this is not true because several members of my family do not smoke. It just seems so. One is hard pressed to find a non smoking section in restaurants, or anywhere else for that matter. Being a confirmed member of the non-smoking society, this is what bothered me the most. I really have no desire to breath second had smoke into my lungs. There is one bright note, however, they do have non-smoking cars on trains.

The dining table has short legs, therefore it is very close to the floor. When eating dinner one must sit or kneel on the floor to eat. Instead of the western fare of salad, main course and dessert, the Japanese give you a very small plate, and set before you is anywhere from 13 to 17 different dishes with all sorts of cuisine on them. You pick and choose what you want. Although I am a very fussy eater, I never had a problem finding several things that I liked. One more thing that might delight anyone reading this account, beer and sake is served at every dinner. Some of the things that you might find at a Japanese table during dinner; sashimi (raw fish), potato crouquettes, yayatori (shish-ka-bob), sweet potatoes, rice, some sort of salad, sushi, pork cutlets, fish (other than sashimi), beef, fish soup, tofu, sukiyaki and the list goes on. Every meal, dinner or otherwise, always ends with a cup or two of green tea. As one can well imagine this keeps the cook of the house busy. The dinner can last up to one and a half hours with a lot of talk and a lot of laughter. It is not just a time to eat, but it is also a time to socialize.

Hot water is always at the ready. When someone drops by the first thing served is green tea. Some other snack is always served, anything from chocolate to crackers to cake.

Shoes are not worn in the Japanese home. One always removes ones shoes at the front door to be replaced by slippers. If one enters a room with tatami, even the slippers come off. This is true with any room with tatami, be it a restaurant, store or temple. Before entering the toilet you also remove your slippers. A special pair is in the toilet for you to put on.

The Japanese drive on the wrong side of the road, at least the wrong side for us. When I first got into Chato’s car upon arriving in Narita, my first thought was, oh my God we are going to crash. Not so, he knew what he was doing, I just forgot that they drive on the wrong side of the road. The steering wheel is also on the wrong side of the car. I would have a lot of trouble driving a car in Japan.

Most all Japanese homes have two shrines, one for Shinto and one for Buddha. The one for Buddha is the most active. Upon getting up each morning the first task one has is to kneel before the Buddhist Shrine, light incense, ring a small bell and pray for your ancestors. This is also done before retiring for the night. It is even done sometimes during the day. On the shrine one will find pictures, rice, a person’s favorite beer and other things that might relate to the deceased. One thing, when lighting incense, never blow on it to extinguish the flame, gently shake it.

The home where we stayed, the Kubota’s, is a very nice home. A little larger than the average Japanese home. Kiyoshi has his own trucking firm and part of his home is also his office. It is not just an extra room, but it is an office that was built as part of the house. This is where he conducts all of his business. He also has a very large property, which is unusual in Japan. There are large properties, but not that many. Land is scarce.

When traveling in Japan be well advised to carry a small hand towel with you. The public toilets, although they provide soap and water, do not provide anything to dry your hands with. Every Japanese that travels have their little towel with them, men, women and children. At first we had to use handkerchiefs, but after a short while we purchased a small hand towel to carry with us.

Vending machines can be found everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I even saw one in the middle of a field, and you know what? it was being used frequently. You can get virtually anything you want from a vending machine. You can get film, saki, beer, juice, soft drinks, cigarettes, batteries for just about anything, coffee, tea, Kleenex, flowers, and the list goes on.

Bicycles are everywhere. There are thousands of cars, but people still use the bicycles. Of course the young are the most frequent users, but I seen a gamut of ages riding their bicycles. When we went to the local train station we saw virtually hundreds of bicycles parked there.

All in all we had a wonderful time in Japan. The country is beautiful, the people are wonderful and it was very hard to return home. We will miss Japan, but especially, we will miss our family. I have been hearing of Fumiko’s  family for years, now I can place faces with names. One of the first things that I did when I got home was to drag out all of the old pictures sent to us from Japan over the years. Can you imagine the delight I had. “Look, there’s Shigeru going to his first day of school.” “Oh my God, look at Teruko, she was such a cute kid,’ “Wow! Kyoko was chubby.” Some of the pictures date back over forty years. It is so much fun to look at them now that I actually know them.

I love Japan and I am very happy to have it as an adopted country.

An update to some of the people, and animals, involved in this story. Sakae passed away on November 10, 2010, Mie and Kiichi had a baby daughter on November 4, 2009 and Taro and Hachi died. Hachi died our our 50th wedding anniversary. Leave it to Hachi to go out in style.

To see photos of the ceremony click on Mieko.