Friday, November 18, 2011

Japan in under 7 days

Day Six  Wednesday, NOV 16,   2011
Being immersed in Japanese culture, even for so short a time,  was like meeting an old friend and starting up a warm friendship right where we left off 30 something years ago. This was not the starry eyed admiration of a 23 year old who was so disappointed in her US plastic-TV 'culture'  Back then and even now I feel this exchange mirrors my deepest misgivings about our young 'culture'-

Reporter: "Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?"
Gandhi: "I think it would be a very good idea."   Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

Now, I know the US has some fine traditions and that Japanese culture also has a dark side. Still, there are so many norms of civil society in Japan and so many Japanese people are so very kind and is remarkable. Some concrete examples I noticed:  Water in the subway, to drink and to fill bottles. Water in fountains at public parks - with faucets that stay on unless turned off. Think about it -where in the US do we still have that? Lights in a subway station with chain pulls that are easily reached by any passerby. Public places in airports and train stations are clean, bright and comfortable.  Tourist places and train stations are filled with people to help you find your way.

I got up, had one last breakfast with Bruce and Mitsue, who have cooked for me and taken care of my every comfort. As much as I missed my family, I was sad to leave because I had felt so at home in Japan and we never see enough of our dear friends who work so hard and live so far away. I said goodbye to Bruce who went off to work first and then answered some emails. Mitsue left an hour or so later and I  had a few free hours on a lovely sunny day to wander and shop for souvenirs.  I went to the mall that was attached to the amusement park and bought some random things and then hurried home to see if all my stuff could be packed into one bag. Took some doing but I did it. I locked up and hopped into a cab that I directed to the correct Ueno station for the train to Narita. Phew. What a trip.

at the onsen, eating a multi-course dinner
Day Five  Tuesday, NOV 15,  2011
First thing this am, we tried to get Mituse's iPad working to download movies. She showed me a delightful story of a tandem telling of "Jack in The Beanstalk" by a two year old and his aunt. Then it was time to hit the road to meet Bruce at Seisen University in Gotanda area of Tokyo. We took three trains and walked a ways too. Poor Mitsue had to do all that and more to get to her work. Seisen Univesrity is a small and beautiful Catholic college. Also an all girls college, the main building is from the 1850s and  the grounds are lush with trees and vegetation - right in the center of Tokyo. Everyone at Seisen was extraordinarily friendly and engaging. Bruce considers himself very lucky.

Day Four  Monday, NOV 14,  2011

Got up really early - around 6AM and walked from Yugawara, Ohnoya onsen,  to the main street and back - almost in time for breakfast.  meet with Kris Kondo, an old friend from Boston/Kaji Aso Studio days. She had so many gifts for me! See them in the slide show below; jewelry, poetry, painted rocks, robes! An amazing treasure trove.

Day Three  Sunday, NOV 13,  2011

We took a taxi to the next talk, which felt as if it was just down the street. has published Mitsue's book and CD. they gathered together nearly 60 teachers of English who were as lively and engaged a group of educators as I have ever met. We had a blast working together. And then it was time for a trip to the Ohnoya onsen and an overnight at a traditional tatami-floored, shoji-doored ryokan. This  feature of Japanese life had been the highlight of my first trip to Japan and I was not disappointed my second time around.  The small town of Yuguwara ( I think I am not remembering the name correctly, will have to check this)  was very charming, more beautiful than 'cute' and we walked around alot. At the inn we exchanged modern western clothes for Japanese yukata and ate and slept on the sweet smelling tatami floor. I was told we even had a small earthquake to round out the authentic cultural experience. I slept right through it because at dinner the sake flowed and the fish dishes just kept on coming. Heavenly!

Day 2 Nov 12, 2011

This was the big day, the day of presentation for the Japanese government grant that Mistue wrote to bring me to Tokyo. Mitsue went off early to get ready.  I was felling a bit better prepared for my 2nd talk to teachers of English and education students.  Bruce and I  traveled together as he had a free day and Mitsue's students met us at her office where I made final adjustments to a program for people who operated in English on a wide variety of levels.

I was very worried that I would get excited and talk too fast. Before the talk I needed to use the bathroom so I hurried down the hall and walked into...a traditional bathroom in the floor. I jumped back and rushed out thinking I had gone into a men's room by mistake. Checking the sign I realized that I had not. The day before when I used that room I had used a stall with a Western style toilet. Culture shock was settling in and my gaffe made me laugh.  Finally the presentation.  My talk seemed to go well at least the teachers laughed at the funny places so I knew we were, at some points at least,  on the same wavelength.

Aoyama Lecture Hall - from  Sasaki,Yuta's blog
The most astounding thing happened during the break.  Mitsue was very eager to introduce me to a young man,  who turned out to be none other than Sasaki-san, the kamishibai guy! He had read the emails we sent the night before at 8 AM and there he was at 10:30AM - come all the way from Kuni-tachi ( a fairly distant part of Tokyo).  I invited him to perform as a slam-dunk finish to the nearly 90+ minute program and he "brought down the house" with his 3 minute story.  Just the day before, two Japanese grad students had told me after hearing me tell stories that I was "lucky to speak English" because there "was no Japanese storytelling".  These students looked very unconvinced when I tried to tell them storytelling exists everywhere and must be alive and well in Japan, too. Sasaki-san and his mother and I had lunch together in Mitsue's office along with Bruce who acted as a translator. We talked for hours ! How lucky we were to have such a devoted translator. It seems the Japanese government has forbidden street performance and this, along with TV, has nearly killed the art form in Japan. Sasaki-san is determined to bring it back!

Sasaki-san performs kamishibai w/iPad
It turns out that years ago, Bruce had told me about Sasaki-san's sensei. Sasaki,Yuta began studying the art of kamishibai in 2006 under the late Masao Morishita, who performed in Tokyo to great acclaim for more than 50 years before his death in 2008.  Years after Bruce told me the story,  I had often repeated to other performers, the moving story of a man who had lost his voice but had recorded his stories so he could continue to perform. Sasaki, is the only '"deshi" ( student/apprentice who trains under and assists a sensei on a committed basis) this master left behind. Sasaki-san showed me one of  Morishita sensei's kamishibai paintings. He has inherited his master's wooden theater and cards and uses them in the tradintional manner in his neighborhood. only there may he practice the art in its natural habitat - the street. I felt so honored but even more, it felt magical somehow, to meet Sasaki and his mother.  We know that we share the same passion for the art of storytelling. Now I feel that somehow I need to take his story and his storytelling, to the US.

Bruce had said that jet lag would hit me around 4PM but around 3 PM I started to have uncontrollable yawns and my eyes started to droop. With deep regrets and promises to see how I could to help promote kamishibai, I said goodbye to Sasaki-san and his mother. We took the train home and I crashed. Poor Mitsue had another full afternoon of presentation to sit through. But when we were reunited we reflected and marveled over the serendipity of the day, as we ate delicious sukiyaki that Mitsue made for us.