It has already been nearly three weeks since we’ve been back from Malaysia and a lot seems to have happened in that time. Including I got a very bad cold and I wasn’t able to do much but lay around and think about all the things I felt I should be doing. It’s almost Christmas and I have shopping, wrapping and shipping to do. But I was so tired and achy I couldn’t even write much, let alone get up and shop. So I’m catching up again.
We returned from Malaysia on Sunday, November, 27. The following Sunday, December 4, we had plans to take the Shinkansen (that’s the speedy Japanese bullet train) down south to Hiroshima prefecture to a small town called Matsunaga. We were headed for a very special visit.
Back in 1991, when I was a university student at the University of California at Riverside, I joined a group of students on an exchange trip to Japan. We came to study at Fukuyama University. We were all hosted by different local families that took us in and cared for us for around 3 weeks. I remember my first impression when I met my host father was that he picked me up in a BMW, which I thought just had to be rare. Expensive German cars in Japan? No way! The second thing I remember is that when he took me to his home he told me he was a doctor and his family hospital was next door to his house. No way again! He had the shortest Japanese commute imaginable.
I was 20 years old and this family took generous care of me. They had two sons and a daughter. Only the daughter, Kumiko, was still living at home but I also saw the middle son, Yoshiki, often. They took me to a Japanese beach and to a fireworks festival, to a traditional tea ceremony and to visit the mother’s family and to department stores… and I got to (had to!) practice Japanese everyday. I remember the house was a beautiful mix of traditional and modern Japanese style. Outside in the yard, my home stay father grew fruits and vegetables and he had a collection of bonsai plants that he cared for. They built a house next door for my home stay father’s brother who had polio and was confined to a wheelchair. I used to visit the uncle often and keep him company. He had been married but his wife had already passed away. One day the uncle gave me a necklace that had been his wife’s. It was a special gift.
Now it is 2016 and it’s been 25 years since I’ve seen this family. I can still remember sitting on the Shinkansen looking out as they stood on the platform waving good-bye. I was sad to leave. We wrote letters for a while but it’s difficult to keep a pen pal relationship going, especially with language differences. Now that we’re living in Japan I knew I had to try to find them again. I searched online for the family’s address in Google Maps. Wow! There was the same hospital and same house next door. The hospital’s online information said that the middle son had taken over as doctor of the hospital! Next I called the hospital but the woman who answered did not speak English. A lot of times people will say that they can’t speak English when in fact their English is very good. But in this case she really couldn’t speak English. So I muddled my way through with terrible Japanese grammar and I mixed up my adjectives and nouns, but I think she vaguely understood me. Especially after I said I came from America. She told me to call back again later to try and reach the doctor.
I called again later that evening and Yoshiki answered the phone. He told me later on that he wasn’t sure who I was from the message that was left, but after he heard me speaking he recognized my voice! We made a plan to travel to Matsunaga to introduce our families and to see his parents again. I was really looking forward to it.
Yoshiki’s wife is lovely. They actually got married in the same year as John and I. I guess we were on the same path. She made a delicious lunch for all of us that looked time intensive. And my home stay parents were there too! My home stay father is actually the one that met us at the station when we arrived. It was like going back in time.
First, he and Yoshiki drove my family to Fukuyama University and we walked around to have a look at the campus. It was a wet day with light & heavy rain. Then we all drove to Matsunaga to the house next door to the hospital. Now Yoshiki and his family live in this house that I once lived at. His parents built a smaller home next door, across the garden, for themselves! It’s still the shortest Japanese commute ever.
Yoshiki now has three daughters. They are nearly the exact same age as my three kids. His eldest daughter is 16 and she is a talented trumpet player. His middle daughter is 13 and she is friendly and outgoing and she plays the oboe. His little daughter is 9 and she is shy. He showed us artwork painted by his youngest and it was amazingly talented. It could have been made by an adult it was that good. My kids and his kids all got along wonderfully. They played games and Wii and talked and ate. I was so happy for all of them to meet!
When we arrived, a special guest was at the door to greet me. Kumiko, the youngest daughter had come from Tokyo for a visit! I was so pleased to see her again. Of all the siblings I spent the most time with her. 25 years ago she was terribly, painfully shy. I was happy to see that she has come out of her shell a bit. She is married and living near Tokyo Haneda Airport now. And I was so happy to see her because I had brought the necklace that her uncle had given me 25 years ago. I have saved it all these years to give to Kumiko someday. And that day finally arrived.
It was such a nice day I didn’t want it to end. John and I got a tour of the hospital, plus a look at their new senior day-care facility that is absolutely terrific. My home stay father gave us a demonstration of every exercise machinery in the building. All I can say is it was kawaii. Yoshiki said it was his father’s idea to build the senior care addition. The oldest son also works here at the new senior care facility. We did not see him on our visit though.
Finally it was getting late. I said good-bye (again) and I hope to see them again someday. It is nice to know that they are still there. Happy and healthy and still living a good life. Too bad our group photo turned out dark. What happened to our photo John?!
The next Sunday, December 11, was our second Sunday special supper. We are so lucky to have old and new connections to enjoy in Japan. The best part of being here in this new country is the people we have met and the connections that we have made with some of them. All of the English-speaking water polo parents have become our friends. When we were at Costco with our new Cambridge U friend, Jay, and his wife, Mari, (she went to Oxford U!), they invited us over for dinner at their house. Just like in the US, we whipped out our smartphone calendars and started looking for a date to get together. And again, just like in the US, it was very hard to find a date that worked for all of us. Pretty much the only date that could work in all of November and December was December 11. But that was Mari’s birthday! She said she didn’t mind sharing her birthday with us.
We met them a little early on so that we could all go hiking in the hills near their house. They live in a very suburban area that is up against hills like in Minoh where we live.
We set off for a small waterfall nearby. Along the way were rocks to climb in the middle of a stream. Some rocks were wet and slippery. Halyard was trying to be a daredevil and bounce around on rocks way out with no good path. We were yelling at him that the rocks were slippery when, SPLASH, he went in the water. Just up to his knees, but that meant his shoes, socks and pants were now wet. And, he lost his glasses in the splash. We spent a bit of time looking for them but to no avail. The water had swallowed them up. Ugh! These were the glasses that we bought for him AFTER we arrived in Japan just 4 months ago. Below, here’s John and our friend looking for Halyard’s glasses.
Our friends have 2 sons, one in 11th grade and the other in 7th grade. When we arrived at their house neither one was home yet. Mari offered Halyard a pair of her son’s pants while she threw his wet pair in the dryer. Their eldest son arrived home later from studying at Starbucks and their youngest son arrived home from a water polo tournament (which Avalon skipped!). At one point their son asked (about Halyard), why is he wearing my pants? It just didn’t make any sense that he had gone in the water. I mean really Halyard, why are you wearing someone else’s pants?
It was a great birthday dinner party! Before dinner they got out all sorts of Costco snacks that they had bought with us. Wow. We met them at Costco a month ago when we got Halyard and Avalon’s birthday cake. I was truly astounded that they still had so much Costco snacks left.
Avalon and I helped prepare okonomiyaki for dinner. We chopped veggies and cracked eggs. Okonomiyaki is a famous Japanese dish which Mari called “Japanese pizza.” But it doesn’t really taste anything like pizza. It’s round and they cut it in slices so that’s the resemblance. We also ate a soup called oden that is filled with all sorts of veggies, roots, eggs and soy and fishcake. It was nice to try this soup since we see it everywhere but hadn’t had a chance to eat it yet.
After dinner we sang Happy Birthday and Mari blew out candles on her cake. They had ordered a Christmas Cake, which is very popular in Japan. I see advertisements for Christmas Cake at all the food stores and some restaurants. Like all Japanese cakes, it is very light and not too sweet. Mari’s cake had whipped cream frosting and filling and a lot of fruit on it and in it. There was also a chocolate banner on top that said Happy Birthday Mari.
Halyard helped their high school son with his English. He got out his English words book and Halyard helped him pronounce and explain the meaning of the words. It was entertaining to listen to them. In the process I think Halyard improved his Japanese, too.
We brought Beanboozled for their boys so all the kids played it after dinner and cake. Oh, it was hilarious. They hadn’t seen it before so our kids explained it. Periodically the kids would run from the table with their hands over their mouths yelling “Gomibaku” (trash can). Or if they had picked a good flavor they would say “Oishii” (delicious) with relief. Pretty soon the Japanese boys took the game to a new level. They decided to pile up about 6-8 jelly beans of the same color and all the kids had to play Janken (yawn-ken: the Japanese version of Rock, Paper, Scissors) to see who would eat it.
I am pretty sure every kid had to eat the pile at least once. When Halyard lost it was the pile of brown beans, which are either chocolate or canned dog food. Sadly, Halyard doesn’t like chocolate jelly beans so he was destined for pain from the start. He tried to get out of playing that round but they made him and then he lost!
When the oldest son lost and had to eat his pile he stood there chewing and chewing and chewing… and his face was contorted but he was trying to get through it. While he was chewing he was saying, “Magnificent,” his new word of the night. But it sounded like “mwagnfsen” to me. It was pretty funny. Eventually the whole thing just degenerated into who could eat the most jelly beans at once and not spit them out. I think our kids had snuck out of the game by then.
Jay drove us all home, which was very kind of him since it meant he could not drink any alcohol during the evening. Japan is very strict about drinking and driving and everyone we’ve met takes this law very seriously. No one drinks a thing – not a drop – if they know they’re going to have to drive. In America we might say oh, I’ll have just one (beer, wine, vodka straight up, what have you!) but not in Japan.
We arrived home pretty late for a school night so I hope we aren’t going to pay for it in the morning! It’s a school night after all. But it was so nice to spend an evening with a Japanese family. Both Sunday night dinners were incredibly fun for everyone. I love that our kids can meet other kids and have a good time no matter where they are. And with both families they had kids with similar ages and of course they all love video games so when in doubt just get out the game console.
Happy Birthday Mari-san!