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Tuesday, April 18

Once again, the electronic rendition of Fur Elise lifted me out of a sound sleep at six a.m. My wife remained asleep. I sat up and peeked out the window. The sun was already over the eastern horizon and was rising exactly at the point where it met the glistening river. I could hear the sound of the light trucks and automobiles swishing along the highway behind us. The birds waited several respectful moments after Beethoven finished and then went back to their songs. And already, many people in the beautiful river valley of Hiro were beginning their day. I wasn't as ready and settled back in for another two hours sleep.

Our plans for the day were going to keep us in Hiro and that was something I was actually looking forward to. This was the place that my wife grew up and, to my eyes, it was one of the most beautiful towns we had seen in all of Japan. But until today, it was a place where we slept at night and simply passed through during the day. My wife's mother had the day off, and we would making the rounds of the relatives. It was going to be another beautiful, warm day. There was just a hint of high clouds and haze in the sky.

Sitting at the kotatsu, my wife and her mom look through old family albums while her sister works on a sewing project.

The three of us walked to the bus stop, missing ours by just a few seconds. I realized that, since we had left the city, I hadn't seen too many people galloping to catch trains and busses. While we were waiting, I watched the work being done on the river bed. Two, surprisingly compact backhoes were working diligently about fifty yards apart, moving gravel to shore up the river banks. This a place where many of the strongest typhoons make landfall and at times, the valley has come perilously close to flooding. An upstream dam helps deal with a large part of the problem, but the local residents clamored for more to be done protecting the river banks. The government had finally responded with a large-scale project to help resist the forces of nature. They were rushing to complete the work by the start of the rainy season in June, when Japan can receive up to a quarter of its annual rainfall in a period of just a few weeks.

Gathering 'round the kotatsu

The next bus finally came and carried us to the center of town. We got off and zigzagged through several blocks of downtown streets to her sisters condo. It was a surprisingly large building with probably a hundred units and rising about eight stories. It was quite new and the pale, tile walls glimmered in the morning sunlight. Like her mothers house, the style was modern Japanese with both traditional and Western influences. We sat down at the kotatsu and sipped the tea my sister-in-law made for us. A kotatsu (loosely translated as "foot-warmer) is a fixture in every Japanese home (including ours in San Jose) from mid-autumn to mid-spring. It often serves as the center of family and social life. It is a low table made of a wooden frame and a hard table top. It sits on the floor atop a thick, durable comforter with another comforter draped over the frame and under the table surface. Attached to the frame is a small electric heater, making it an attractive, cold-weather centerpiece for the living room. Often, comfortably padded, leg-less chairs were placed around the table.

Her husband was at work and the children were in school and my wife's sister was sitting at her sewing machine working on a project for her daughter and talking with my wife and her mother. A morning variety show was playing quietly on the TV. Behind us was a Japanese room with tatami mats where she and her husband slept. Near the entrance were two, small bedrooms for her son and daughter. Each had a neat desk with a modest number of toys and books placed neatly on shelves. With the futons folded away, the rooms seemed comfortably spacious.

After a while, our sister had to leave for work and we walked with her to the garage under the building and watched as she put on her helmet and drove off on her sleek, red motor scooter. I must confess that I felt a bit envious. It looked like it was great fun.

We walked several more blocks and came, once again, to the Jusco department store in the center of town. While my wife and her mother shopped for cloths, I explored some of the more interesting areas of the store. Once again, I found myself dazzled by the sophistication of the appliances and consumer electronics. I thought that, perhaps in such a rural area, I might find a more plebian selection, but no way. There wasn't as much variety as the big city stores, but the products themselves seemed to be from a different decade than anything I could find here in the US.

A Casual Lunch Downton

We met back at the entrance at noon and, discovering that we were running a little late, took a cab to the small restaurant where we were to meet our aunt for lunch. The cab was a little more working-class than the taxies we took in Kyoto. The driver and the interior of his car were both a little more casual in appearance, but still far more formal than I'm used to seeing. As always, the rear door opened automatically for us, clean white linen covers were on the seats and clean white gloves were on the hands of the driver, even though he was wearing an open-collar shirt without a tie. In a very few minutes, we were at the door of the little restaurant and were promptly seated at the corner table where our aunt had just arrived.

She had her own car, a large Nissan, which she loved to drive and did so rather aggressively.

The inside of the restaurant was dark and cool and gave the feeling of being a place that had been in the community forever. A short counter ran partially along the back wall where one of the owners was working, folding clean hand towels to place in the warmer. A large, old stainless steel coffeemaker stood on another counter behind her, flanked by stacks of dishes, plates, cups and saucers. Another, taller counter ran along the far wall. This could have been a bar at one time, but now sat under a cluttered collection of items which were partially decorative and occasionally functional. As was the case with most informal restaurants and coffee shops, a rack near the door (and directly behind our table) had an assortment of current magazines and manga (comics) for adult readers. I picked one up one of the popular, weekly magazines and started browsing through it, discovering that it, too, was for very adult readers. I slipped it back in the rack and acted like I was listening to the ladies' conversation.

Our aunt is a remarkable woman and not at all a typical Japanese housewife. She had her own car, a large Nissan, which she loved to drive and did so rather aggressively. Her manner showed an inner strength that was similar to her sister but wore it more openly. She was very thin and extremely energetic. Her husband, who we wouldn't have a chance to see on this trip, was a hard-working taxi driver.

After lunch, our aunt drove us to her brother's house in a neighborhood just across the highway from our house. She dropped us off and continued on to where she lived, just around the corner.

An Interesting and Successful Life

Of all the family members in the area, our uncle was the most successful. He was a young man during the occupation immediately following the war and his English skills and fascination with all things American led him to a job supporting the American military and then to a post at the American embassy in Tokyo. He left there after a lengthy career and moved on to a very successful business venture. This let him return to Hiro and build a home that was large, comfortable. The home and the lush garden surrounding it glowed with understated grandeur and beauty. He led us to the Japanese room and we sat around a low, square table at its center on thick, comfortable cushions placed on the finely woven tatami mats covering the floor. Our uncle sat with his back to the tokonoma, a small alcove containing a single, beautiful plant and decorative scroll. I was seated opposite him and my wife, the youngest (and a woman) had the seat closest to the entrance. This was all according to a tradition dating back to the days of the samaurai. Our uncle's wife brought me a cup of delicious, thick green tea--the kind that is generally prepared with great care and effort.

Our uncle was obviously enjoying the opportunity to use his English once again and provided me with a detailed account of his long and varied career. He was old enough to remember the war, but was not old enough to have participated in it. Like most American's, I am a little surprised by the attitude of the contemporary Japanese. Of all the foreign nationals who come to live and visit, we are clearly the favorite in spite of the war's devastation. From what I have grown to understand, the attitude of the Japanese people is that WWII was the result of an aggressively militaristic government and not the will of the population. In modern, Japanese literature, there seems to be a much greater concern and shame regarding the Japanese actions in China than there is with the war fought with America. In Japan, there is no irony in the fact that the memorial monument in Hiroshima is called "Peace Park."

After I finished my tea, we walked to the small, comfortable bedroom where my wife's grandmother, the family's ninety-eight-year-old matriarch lived. She was small and frail now, and easily confused. But she had been the center of my wife's family for most of the twentieth century. It was with her help that my wife was able to be the first woman in the family to attend college and in that way, was started on the path that would allow the two of us to meet. Grandmother's age was one of the things that made this trip so important to my wife. It was hard to say how many more opportunities she would have so see her. I bowed and greeted her as respectfully as I knew how. She had a little trouble recognizing my wife but that had no effect on the deep love and respect that my wife showed for her. In the grandmother's eyes, I could still see in her the seed of strength that had been planted in all the women in her family.

Next: A Very Sentimental Journey

 
 

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