Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Japan has been on my mind. Besides donating money to relief efforts, is there anything I can do? I can tell you a brief anecdote about my experience in Japan that connects me with the nation and the people forever.
Loneliness. I didn’t know what loneliness felt like until 1968. Until then, family, friends, and familiar culture surrounded me at home, at school, at work. Everything changed in 1968 when I married Fred and flew to Japan to be an Army wife. Many thousands of miles separated me from all things familiar. My new home had sliding paper doors, straw mat floors, no curtains, no hot water, and, worst of all, no phone. I missed my family and my friends. I couldn’t work to pass the time; no Army wives could be employed unless they had teaching credentials. I had always worked – part-time jobs in high school and college, full-time as a social caseworker ever since. I missed work. I even missed my mother, and we had never gotten along very well. Real loneliness.
Fred worked days at Kuma Station and he took the car. We lived off-post and we had no American neighbors. I knew about ten words of Japanese. I bought a basket and walked to the local market every day like the Japanese wives. We nodded and bowed and smiled at each other.
Small Japanese children followed me on my outings. "Baby? Baby?" they asked.
I understood they wanted to play with my baby. But I didn’t have a baby. I should have had a baby; I was twenty-seven years old. Japanese women and American women were alike in that respect; the ticking of biological clocks started earlier in 1968.
"No baby," I replied, holding out empty hands and shrugging my shoulders. No, I’m alone. Day after day for ten hours a day, I’m alone.
Day to day loneliness hurt enough; I did not look forward to holidays when I missed family and friends even more. Fred shared my feelings of isolation -- the thought of staying home by ourselves depressed both of us. We decided we had to go somewhere and do something different. We asked our Japanese teacher for suggestions and he helped us make reservations at a small ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in the hot springs resort area of Lake Akan, a day’s drive from our home in Chitose on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The change of scene lifted our spirits. Lake Akan, a crater lake, is known for its rare ball-shaped algae species, the marimo. Left undisturbed, marimo can grow to the size of soccer balls. Bright emerald green, they glow like giant magical emeralds in the crystal waters. We rushed from attraction to attraction, giddy foreign tourists outsnapping the Japanese photographers.
Lake Akan nestles at the center of Ainu country. The Ainu culture dates back to the 13th Century. They are Japan’s indigenous people. We visited an Ainu village and bought several beautiful woodcarvings from their handicraft shops.
Late in the afternoon we checked into our ryokan. The hotel staff pantomimed the need to exchange our shoes for zori, thong sandals made of straw. In our room we found yukata (robes) laid out on the futon (bedding) and tea and sweets on the table. After enjoying a private onsen (hot spring bath) and a delicious meal served in our room in at least fourteen small covered dishes, we settled down on our private patio to enjoy the fresh breeze from the lake.
Darkness wrapped around us and we embraced, kissed, and whispered promises to have a baby. We gazed at the stars and out across the water. Against the skyline I thought I imagined the outline of a boat.
At that moment Fred whispered, "There’s a boat. And there’s another behind it. And another and another, can you see them?"
A parade of boats glided silently along the shoals, emerging from the shadows directly in front of our patio. All at once, fireworks burst from every boat. Skyrockets, chrysanthemums of light, exploded in poppety-pop-pop brilliance for a serendipitous exclamation point to the beginning of a new family and the end of my loneliness.