First in an occasional series about Japanese friends, Japanese experiences and Japanese insights
Sharon and I are back from Japan after visits to Tokyo and Nagasaki. Tourism is at an all-time high in Japan, with much of the increase coming from Eastern Asian countries, China, South Korea and Taiwan. The Japanese are happy to take these tourists’ money, but not so keen to have them around, given their fraught history. But, as they say, you can’t have it both ways. So, at least for now, money takes preference over antipathy.
But if Japan is crowded now, just wait until July and the start of the 2020 Olympics. Authorities are anticipating huge crowds and work is in progress, particularly in the major tourist areas like Ginza and Shibuya, to update and modernize subway stations, street crossings and shopping venues. Despite the anticipated influx of tourists, we might go if we can secure event tickets — no luck so far, despite many connections.
Our Japan visits always seem like “coming home;” we lived in Tokyo for 4+ years in the early ‘90’s and try to go back every year or so.
Not just for the culture and sites and food, but for the people, our friends, both Japanese and gaijin… 外人, or literally, “outside person”. (OK, maybe the food has a little to do with the frequent returns – have you ever tried to have a good Japanese meal in Palm Beach County?)
Today I’ll talk about our friends, the Hattori’s. Subsequent columns will highlight other friends and other experiences in Japan.
The Hattori’s, Kyoko and Yukio, are like family to us. Kyoko conducted cooking classes for expats when we lived in Tokyo. She and Sharon developed an incredible bond and Kyoko now considers Sharon her “sister” (this always gets a puzzled look when Kyoko mentions to other Japanese that Sharon is her sister). We stay at the Hattori’s when we’re in Tokyo and try to join them as often as possible to celebrate their grandchildren’s birthdays. The Hattori’s son, Yuki-hero is married to Mariko. They have two children, a son, Yukito and a daughter, Kanon. You might be seeing a trend here: Yukio, Yuki-hero and Yukito. Our daughter, Bari, refers to the family as the “Yuki’s, not the Hattori’s – as in “How are the Yuki’s?”
We’ve traveled extensively around Japan with the Hattori’s. Sharon, who is a certified travel consultant, has, through Kyoko, developed relationships with tour guides around Japan (Mr. Kawaguchi, in Kyoto, is exceptional!) which makes touring for her clients much more rewarding.
On this trip we visited Nagasaki in Kyushu (the third largest of Japan’s four main islands). Kyoko was born in Nagasaki; her mother was carrying her when the atomic bomb was dropped. We decided to travel to Nagasaki on this trip because of the city’s historical significance.
As everyone knows, it was the second city (and, to this point, the last) in the world to be attacked with an atomic bomb. But it was also where Japan’s relationship with the outside world began. When Japan was closed to the world, Nagasaki was the only part of Japan that allowed foreigners, first Portuguese traders, and then, when the Portuguese were banned because proselytizing became more important to the Catholic Portuguese then trading, the Dutch. These gaijin were relegated to an island in Nagasaki, Dejima, where their ships came to load and unload cargo and from which they couldn’t leave without explicit permission. Dejima existed as this foreign window on the world from 1641 until 1854 when Japan was finally opened to the West. The “Dejima Dutch Trading Post” was designated a Japanese national historic site in 1922 and the island, now attached to the mainland, is home to a restoration of the original trading post.
Of course, the main reason for going to Nagasaki is to learn more about the atomic bomb attack and to visit the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Nagasaki Peace Park. While the museum, like the one in Hiroshima, has exhibits showing the history of the war, including discussions of Japanese aggression and the horror and devastation of this bombing, the overall takeaway feels different, summed up by this excerpt, from the Museum’s introductory statement:
“The citizens of Nagasaki pray that this miserable experience will never be repeated on Earth. We also consider it our duty to ensure that the experience is not forgotten but passed on intact to future generations.”
For the entire statement, go to https://nagasakipeace.jp/english/abm.html
But, beyond the sites and history, perhaps the best part of our Nagasaki visit was to meet, and share a meal with, Kyoko’s cousin, Michiko Kaneko, and her family. The centerpiece of the meal was sara udon, also known as Nagasaki noodles and sometimes called “chamen.” (Sounds a bit like “chow mein” – well it resembles that ubiquitous Chinese dish. Why? Because, remember, Nagasaki was Japan’s window to the outside world, and that outside world included China and its food; ramen and gyoza are also Japanese dishes of Chinese origin.
But the real treat in visiting with Kyoko’s family was meeting them and learning about their life. Michiko’s son, Junya, is an English teacher (who, by the way, can barely speak English – but that’s another story). Michiko’s husband, Yoshiyuki, runs an abacus school. A what? Are they still using abacus’ in Japan? No, not really. So why have a school? Because it teaches children how to concentrate, focus and think!
This was demonstrated by the abacus drill the family put on for us. As Yoshiyuki, the sensei (teacher), chanted a series of numbers to add in Japanese, the kids calculated the answer with their abacus, shouting out “hai” when they solved the problem. The youngest, Airu-chan, almost six years old, was the first “hai” most of the time. Then, in an incredible exhibition of how this concentration works, the sensei had the kids do the calculation without the abacus…simply in their heads, with their fingers tapping the table to enhance their focus. Yes, Airu won that one too.
And, one last thing: the kids did this in front of two gaijin, whom they had just met, without any complaining or pushback. Not even a お母さん、私たちはそれをしなければなりませんか /“Okāsan, watashitachi wa sore o shinakereba narimasen ka”) “Mom, do we have to do that?” Incredible!
More on Japanese friends, Japanese experiences, and Japanese insights in future Around the Block Travels to Japan posts.