And Now for Something Completely Japanese
Monday, June 26- 2nd full day
Flying through the Japanese countryside at 200mph is a surreal experience. Rice fields inhabit every square meter of land possible. Farms dot the landscape. Rolling hills covered in lush green tress fly past the window, and every once in a while there is a temple. Or a factory. Or a river. Lots of rivers. And I didn’t see one person fishing in them.
We got to Koriyama station, a small town where Miyuki grew up, and saw the bright, smiling, familiar faces of family. Miyuki, cousins Emily and Allen, and Miyuki’s parents, whom we haven’t seen since the wedding 17 years ago. We rented a car and jammed our small suitcases and bags into both cars and headed up into the Japanese mountains towards Aizu-Wakamatsu. We had decided that Geri should drive, since a white woman might get more sympathy than a dude who looked Japanese. Even following another car was difficult, as we had to fight every urge to move to the right. But Geri picked it up quickly. I think driving in LA is pretty good training for driving in the world.
The contrast from Tokyo was staggering. Just that morning, we had walked through the modern Roppongi Hills mall, took the subway to Tokyo Station and boarded the Shinkansen. Now were were in lush green mountains, surrounded by rice fields and small towns. We took a winding road up to Lake Inawashiro, a huge lake that looked to be about the size of Lake Tahoe. We stopped briefly near the lake at a rest stop and had some simple food. Ramen and ice cream. In Japan, it seems you are never far from two things: vending machines filled with beverages and ice cream. Oh, and 7 Elevens are everywhere, too. Surprisingly good food there.
Miyuki’s family paid for us all to stay in an Onsen in the town of Aizu. An Onsen is a hotel with public baths. Our Onsen was in the hills above town. We learned that this was a Samurai town with a lot of significant history, particularly at the end of the Samurai days when the new government went to war with them to establish a new order. No mention of Tom Cruise anywhere. Weird.
We were accompanied by Miyuki’s brother, Minoru, who knew the area well and served as our guide. At this point, I was beginning to feel, for lack of a better term, Japanese. After checking into our room, which was a tatami mat open space with a small kitchenette and bathroom, we walked down the hill to the Samurai castle.
This was my first real encounter with Japanese history. As we walked through the grounds, I read every English placard and poster, devouring bits and pieces of a history I never learned. I grew up identifying with George Washington, Abe Lincoln, the early settlers of the West, World War 1 and 2 through American eyes. I knew almost nothing outside of 45 minutes of The Last Samurai and a few bits of the Shogun miniseries from the 80’s. Before this trip, I never imagined I could see myself in Japan’s history, and yet there I was, searching for myself in 1868 Japan, wondering what I would do or be. Learning this history felt like discovering a part of myself.
I wasn’t angry that I had been denied this history. I’m an American, and I am glad I have a solid understanding of American and western history. I was saddened, though, that the reason I have never even been interested in Japanese history is largely due to the camps. With no connection and some mild hostility towards Japan in my family, there were no stories of the old country and no family anecdotes about our ancestors. My family tree only goes back to my great grandparents. Before that is a mystery to us, though I’m sure there are ways to discover the missing branches. We just never thought to find out because of our ambivalence.
We suited up into our Onsen yukatas, provided by the place. The boys went to our side, the girls to theirs. The baths were on the 3rd floor, so the views looking out at the town and surrounding tree-covered hills were spectacular. The forest was so dense, it looked like a green carpet of trees. I imagined it would be tough going to try and walk through it.
Hot spring water with a view of the Aizu forrest is a magical experience. Ethan and I relaxed in several of the large outdoor tubs. Owen and Allen bounced around and splashed, with me repeatedly telling them to shut the fuck up. Some older men grumbled at the boys interrupting their peaceful moment, and I didn’t blame them. Fortunately, it was almost dinner, so everyone was leaving. We stayed an extra 15 minutes with the pools to ourselves.
And then: dinner. The special of the night was that the chefs would demonstrate how to carve up a medium-sized tuna that looked to be about 100 pounds. It was a big buffet room, and everyone went over to the main kitchen counter to watch. While that was happening, we walked around the buffet tables. There was so much food. Pickled things. Fish, root vegetables. Ramen, udon, and soba, all locally made. The specialty of the sushi station was horse sushi. We tried a piece. It was like raw beef with a hint of spice. With a nod to Peter Mayle, we ate for Japan.
We hit the Onsen again, and returned to our rooms to find they had covered the hard bare floors with decently soft futon mattresses. We had driven a couple of stressful hours through the hills and countryside of northern Japan, hiked through a Samurai castle, ate what seemed like our weight in food, and now we slept. Hard floor and all, we slept, the five of us, with the ancient forests outside our windows. I fell asleep imagining the ghosts of samurai, some of whom might be my ancestors, watching over us.