Thursday 21 May 2015

10 Days and 5 Canadians in Japan, Eh - Days 7-10 (Fukaya)

 (In case you missed it, click here to start this journey on Day 1)

Day 7 - Mon, April 20th: Fukaya 

Japan Gets Real:
Today we embark on the last leg of our 10-day journey. We're leaving Kyoto by Bullet Train, heading back to Tokyo where we'll board a train bound for Junko's home town of Fukaya. We're expecting her brother to meet us there with his large van.

Junko's a bit nervous about missing our Bullet Train, so after a leisurely breakfast, and with nothing else to do, we arrive at the station at noon; two hours early.

Mom and Dad do puzzles and I set the kids up, watching a movie on the laptop. I brought it so that I can write, but I think I'm happier that it can show movies.

Rihana (8) and Noah (10) making good use of the laptop in Kyoto Station.

Watching a Pokemon movie, of course.

I people-watch and realize that Junko could be making money offering advice to the confused caucasian tourists who wander like dazed ghosts, probably looking for a decent coffee and a donut.

It's 7pm by the time we arrive at Fukaya Station where we are warmly greeted by Junko's father and sister-in-law, as well as her brother. At first, I am flattered by the turnout, but then they explain that Junko's brother sold his van and so they needed three of their diminutive cars to transport us all.

In my father-in-law's car, on the way out of the station, Dad spots McDonald's which ends up being our first meal at Junko's family home.

In an earnest attempt to provide my mother and father maximum privacy, the family has cleared the spare room for them—behind walls that are paper thin, as they are made of paper. Also, there are holes in the paper. They have thoughtfully provided my mother a fold-out bed to make it easier for her to get in and out of bed. Dad sleeps on a futon, like the rest of us.

By Western standards, it seems sparse and authentically Japanese, and a far cry from the luxury in which we were swaddled, less than 12 hours ago.

A little too late, I am beginning to see my father-in-law's house through the eyes of my parents.

The Household:
Ok, knit your brow for a few paragraphs, because I want to give you the lay of the land, and this will involve describing the relationships and the atmosphere in my father-in-law's house.

My father-in-law is known to my family as "Jisan" because that is how the kids used to mispronounce the Japanese word for Grandfather (Ojiisan), when they were younger. Ok, ok... it was me who mispronounced it. Jisan is about 75 and a bachelor, having lost his wife about 10 years ago.

Jisan's house has two floors; each a complete home. As is tradition among most Japanese, the eldest son (Katsuya) lives upstairs with his wife (Teruyo) and their two children (Kazuki, 21 and Hiroki, 18.) The eldest son usually inherits the father's estate, so Katsuya is being groomed to take over the family's farming business. My wife, Junko, is a few years younger than Katsuya and is Jisan's only other child. Kazuki has a girlfriend named Ayane who is a frequent guest.

Jisan and Junko. Photobombed!

Including my mother, father, our two kids and myself, there are now 12 people contained in a 2000 sqft. paper box, for the next three days. Should be fun!

The house is traditional in style and sits in the center of a large yard, surrounded by a high, cement fence. Inside the house, the walls are sliding panels of paper. Such distinctions between inside and outside—strangers and family, others and self—lie at the core of many aspects of Japanese culture. In terms of privacy, Japanese are comfortable to experience it only within their thoughts. This is one of the major differences between the comfort zones of the Japanese and those of my mother.

Outside it looks pristine, but inside, Jisan's house is not the 5-star accommodation it once was. Fifteen years ago, when I first visited, the perfection of each room was impressive, but he had a wife taking care of the household details, back then. Now there are holes in the paper walls, peeling wallpaper, broken doors on the kitchen cabinets and sliding doors that grind instead of glide.

As most of the walls slide and all the doors are extremely thin, everything rattles and echoes throughout the house, when moved. There is no sneaking to the bathroom at 3am. As a consequence, the Japanese members of the family sleep very deeply while the Canadians lie awake, either hearing or making strange sounds in the night.

With 12 people coming and going, there is not a quiet minute or private space. My wife's family share limited space without apparent need for elbow room or stealth. In fact, they seem to love noise. No sooner does someone enter the house than they turn on one of the many TV's, for background noise. Contributing to the cacophony, the young adults love playing with our kids, which ratchets their volume knobs to eleven.

If you add to all of this confusion the inability to communicate, it's very disorienting for Canadian visitors. In doing their son the favour of traveling to this strange land, my parents have stepped 8,000 miles outside their comfort zone. At this moment, looking at the two of them struggling to maintain a pleasant facade, I have never had more sympathy for anyone than I do for myself. It's now obvious to me that the crazy things children ask of their parents, never ends.

My Japanese has improved since my last visit and I now have some ability to communicate and understand what is going on and so, for the first time, I find myself quite relaxed in Jisan's home and excited to express my many profound thoughts and opinions. Their smiles tell me that they are impressed.

Later that night, after we have all settled in to our beds, we hear Jisan repeatedly calling out in his sleep: “Zen zen Chigau!”

ME: What's he saying?

NOAH: Dad, it's the same thing he's been saying to you, all day: "That's completely wrong!"

Day 8 - Tues, April 21st
As I've mentioned, Dad is not one for sitting around and so, at 5:30 in the morning, he spontaneously decides to go for a 40-minute jog. When he returns, he locks the front door. Problem is, by that time, Jisan is out and about.

Junko and I are awakened at 6:30 by her father calling her name, from outside.

If this trip has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that a good, comfortable breakfast is the foundation of a happy crew of tourists. Recalling my habits from our last visit, five years ago, Teruyo has stocked the kitchen with bread, butter, jam, coffee and breakfast cereals—items that they would not otherwise buy. But because Japanese cuisine is markedly different than Canadian, there are exactly two knives in the house. I notice this while hacking at a loaf of bread with a butter spreader. For breakfast, I serve my Mom and Dad a mangled piece of dry toast and instant coffee.

Specialty of the house: Chiseled bread.

Junko's single biggest failure in planning this trip has been in securing the cooperation of the weather. We now realize just how much all of our plans and arrangements hinge on decent weather.

Most Japanese homes, including this one, do not have central heating. The weather has deteriorated and so it's a bracing 14ºC (57ºF), inside the house. Thank god the toilet seat is heated. It's probably where Mom and Dad would prefer to spend the day.

I discuss my parents' accommodation with Jisan who reckons that they should be comfortable here as the weather is roughly the same as in Victoria, this time of year. I point out that, in Canada, we do not have weather inside our houses. Jisan suddenly "gets it," fishes an electric heater from a closet and plugs it in, in my parents' room.

The rain stops and the day becomes warm enough for us to go for a walk around the neighbourhood. At last, Japan delivers some of the serenity that I had promised my mother. Dad's more of a "Do-er" and doesn't really appreciate serenity, obviously having forgotten his days of  child-rearing.

As we walk, a van decorated with signs meanders through the neighbourhood. Some very enthusiastic person inside is babbling, via megaphones affixed to the roof. There is a civic election going on and vehicles like this will visit us about twice a day, for the next week. The first time I saw one of these, I ran after it for three blocks before realizing it wasn't selling ice cream. I just couldn't imagine anyone being so enthusiastic about a thing, if it wasn't ice cream.

Noticing that my parent's haven't eaten anything substantial in 24 hours, Jisan takes us all to a steak house for dinner. My parent's are happy, though my children are chomping at the bit to get some authentic Japanese sushi.

One thing I know about visiting Jisan's house is that you never have any idea what will happen next. You may go to bed agreeing it would be good to wake up late and read a good book only to be roused for a road trip to an ancient shrine or modern shopping mall; whatever they've determined you will enjoy. Largely, the determining process happens without consultation. Perhaps, when you arrived you casually said something like, "nice vase," because that was the only Japanese phrase you could muster, and now you find yourself touring a ceramic factory, three hours into the mountains.

We are all still tired from all our exploring and eight days of strangeness but comforted in our belief that we are returning to Jisan's for a leisurely game of Ground Golf. Instead, we find ourselves hijacked and on a two-hour journey to see the garden at Hitsujiyama Park (Hitsujiyama Koen.) One of us must have said "nice flower," at some point. The garden is impressive, even though it's off-season and only half the blossoms are blooming. So, what do you do to justify two hours of driving to a five-minute spectacle? You spend two hours and a hundred dollars in the adjacent tourist shops. This turns out to be the place we purchase most of our souvenirs (omiyage) for people back home.

It's off-season and there are about half the blossoms there will be a month from now, in May.

Ice cream!

That night, the eldest son, Kazuki (21) brings his girlfriend, Ayane, home for dinner. Kazuki has always been popular but he is the eldest son of a farmer—destined to be a farmer, himself—and modern women are not generally attracted to the lifestyle of farm-wife, though that lifestyle has changed and is no longer the hardship it once was. Ayane appears to adore Kazuki, seemingly oblivious to any such concerns.

Kazuki and his girlfriend, Ayane.
Kazuki may be wearing his shirt backwards.

Ayane is not what I expected. Rather than being a delicate flower, like most young Japanese girls I've met; she's athletic, and more tomboyish than dolled up. She's studying to become a nurse and has a part time job as a swimming instructor. I like her.

Ayane can speak quite a bit of English and so we quickly start talking. Most people say that I look deceptively young, but almost immediately, Ayane correctly guesses that I'm 56. "But sixty is the new forty," she quips. I smile, thinly. For me the logic falls short because by extension: Dead is the new alive. I don't like her.

Day 9, Wed, April 22nd

Mom and Dad's last full day in Japan:
A very unorganized day, much of it spent listening to those around us scramble to find something for us to do in the rain. The only thing I really want to do—and number one on my Japan to-do list—is to visit an izakaya (neighbourhood pub) and have a beer with my parents, in a traditional Japanese setting. There's a great one about a block away. Thinking this was a slam-dunk, I saved this event for when we had nothing better: Like now! Turns out,  the local one is no longer popular and not open very often, and, in any case, weirdly, all local izakaya's are closed on Wednesdays.

Dad demonstrating his impressive coping skills.

Jisan is goaded into taking us to a restaurant where we can enjoy deep fried foods and a beer. It's an entirely modern looking restaurant, about an hour's drive away, and none of us really understands why we are there except that this is how things get twisted when the Japanese are trying too hard to please. My wife is unable to come with us and my father-in-law refuses to drink, making the excuse that he has to drive. This is such a sudden departure from the man I've known for 15 years that it makes me wonder if he's hiding a grim secret: Like, that he is dying. I file this away for later. We eat and drink in relative silence and return home.

With a combined century of marriage experience between them, these men have perfected the art of appearing to understand what is being said to them.

I used to fight it, but am now used to my Japanese family's persistence in pleasing which is often based on a misunderstanding and leads to gifts or outings that you really do not welcome. I have learned that if the Japanese offer you something, then they have pretty much already decided that you need it, or at least, that your life would be enhanced with one... or a dozen. Refusing their gestures is a waste of time, energy and your bad Japanese. I know of at least four ways to say "no," in Japanese. They have all proven equally ineffective.

For the rest of the day, Mom reads a book, huddled in her room with a coat on and the heater going, full blast. Dad watches Netflix on the laptop, then a baseball game on Japanese TV.

This is how my parents endure their final full day in Japan: POW's scratching notches on the wall.

Jisan and Dad enjoying their time together.

Day 10, Thu, April 23rd:

End of Days:
The family all turn out to drive Mom and Dad to the bus which will take them to the airport. Dad insists on taking the earliest bus which will deposit them at the terminal at least 4 hours in advance of their departure. Though none of us can imagine any scenario in which they are unable to navigate their way from the bus to the airplane, we don't argue and I start thinking that my blog might get an epilogue with a late-breaking plot twist.

Keeping the izakaya experience in mind, I have already checked to make sure that buses run on Thursdays, just in case.

The sun has finally come out and the day is warm and bright. While we wait for the bus, what we believe to be a large hummingbird zooms past and lands on the pavement, a few feet away. Noah is the first to notice that the hummingbird has mandibles and a stinger. Though it's just as large, it's not a hummingbird, but a Japanese Giant Hornet; a 3-inch-long wasp.

In no imaginable circumstance is this me holding any of these nightmarish creatures.

My father finally breaks. "I want to go home," he says.

The bus appears and we all hug goodbye. As Dad embraces me and shakes my hand, he palms to me an envelope filled with cash. It's an emotional moment and though no words are exchanged, his meaning is clear: "Whatever the cost, bring me back one of those Japanese toilet seats."

They board the bus and it soon pulls away. All involved are simultaneously sad and relieved.

And that's the story of how my mother and father abandoned me in a foreign country.

My parents made it home without issue, but a couple of funny things happened later, that same day.

Though Jisan always appeared happy and nonchalant, I guess he'd been on his best behaviour during my parents' visit. At dinner, and for the first time since we arrived, he breaks open a bottle of beer. Good news: He's not dying.

Many Japanese have begun using beds instead of the traditional futons, and it turns out that the folding bed Mom used, was actually Hiroki's. He asks for my help to fold it and lug it upstairs to his room. I notice a pin attached to a chain and assumed it's to lock the bed in it's folded position, but we can't figure out how, so we take it, as is. At about 2am there's a thunderous crash from upstairs, as if Fred Flintstone opened his closet and his bowling ball collection came tumbling out. We are awakened at about 6am by a similar noise. We later learn that Hiroki's bed had collapsed twice, during the night. The pin was meant to secure the bed in it's unfolded position.

Interestingly, during the three days that my mother slept on that bed, the pin was not in place.

In back: Morris (Dad), Linden (Mom), Kazuki, Teruyo, Jisan, Katsuya, Junko and Bill In front: Noah, Rihana and Hiroki.

What 10 Days in japan Taught Me About My Parents:
• By starting with the attitude that he didn't want to go in the first place and that he would be miserable the entire time, my father was able to appreciate it when something sucked less than he'd expected and so, seemed to cope better than the rest of us. My perpetually optimistic mother, on the other hand, found herself constantly challenged. Hail to the power of negative thinking!

• During our conversations in Kyoto, I learned that my father is capable of deep thoughts. Some of these thoughts have involved him changing his mind. These two observations fly in the face of his family image as an old fashioned, black and white, keep-it-simple kind of man.

• My mother's observations on Japanese culture, my children and relationships within the family were as insightful as I'd imagined they'd be. Her wisdom and ability to offer sage advice, remains unchallenged.

• For my father, I will finally reveal all the reasons I asked them on this trip:
      1) When I was 18, my parents took us all to Europe for a month. I wanted to return the favour—although, at times, it may have seem more like retribution than reward. Payback is such a funny word, don't you think?

      2) To bring both my parents closer to my children. This was an experience that none of us are going to forget.

      3) So that I could share an adventure with my parents.

      4) To connect my family to Japan, which is now a permanent part of my life, and the life of my children.

      5) To visit Jisan and connect with his family, as he has visited us and connected with ours.

      6) To show them the Japanese toilet.

Incidental Observations:
Common Broom Bush selling in a local garden shop.
Where I come from, this invasive and almost-indestructible plant is a plague.

Manhole covers in Japanese cities are usually much more decorative than in Canada.
"Dad! There's weeds in the bathtub!" Noah yells, after rolling back the insulating cover. "We're having kid soup for dinner," I reply from the couch, "Hop in!" On May 5th (Children's Day) it is tradition to put Iris leaves and roots in the bathwater to promote good health and ward off evil.

It's Coke, but with about half the sugar. Wish we had this in Canada.

The Japanese have a long tradition of taking only those elements from a religion that they feel are valuable. As a result, they assimilate and accommodate many religions without conflict. In most homes I've visited, you would see both Shinto (above) as well as Buddhist (below) elements, like these two shrines in Jisan's home.

In Jisan's house: A hand-cranked document shredder.

Milk home delivery is still available.

Though they are years ahead of us in cell phone use and tech, they still have a lot of phone booths in Japan.

Examples of weird English is a many.
Especially prevalent, are strange-English T-shirts for toddlers and teens. I think they try to be edgy but often end up inappropriately sexual. One toddler's shirt I saw, read: "Call me, Bitch!"
I was a little surprised that Ayane liked to eat inago (locust) which is a common snack food in her home town of Nagano. But I was even more surprised that everyone of my Japanese family also liked it! I tried it. It actually tasted good, but I hated picking bug feet out from between my teeth.

Something more familiar but with unfamiliar flavour: Apple Pie Kit Kat and Matcha Tea Kit Kat. It's worth noting that most potato chips on store shelves are not salt flavour, but sushi or nori (sea weed).
Japan has a long tradition in using paper and this is still reflected in modern news programs which use paper charts with peel and stick labels as much as they use computer graphics.

According to everyone at a family get-together, my wife, Junko, looks like the Japanese skater, Akiko Suzuki. I didn't really see the resemblance, but kept my mouth shut so that if Junko ever finds me in bed with Akiko Suzuki, I'll have an excuse.

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