Back to my future

November 15, 2016 § 14 Comments

On January 15, 1987, a day engraved in my memory, I first came to Japan. In those days that was the day of the Adult Day ceremony, when women who were 21 donned elaborate furi-sode kimonos and filled the stations and streets with stunning beauty.

I thought it was everyday wear …

That night the snow fell and I awoke, jet-lagged, and walked the streets of Kichijoji amidst the early morning smells of grilled fish and miso soup wafting through the windows. Those things and the blanket of snow that covered Inokashira Park changed my life forever.

Three decades later things the Showa emperor was dead and his son was now on the verge of abdication. The airplane’s toilets, though, were still tiny and cramped. Perhaps the food was better but perhaps it wasn’t because I still haven’t gotten over the luxury of flying, in any class, to notice or care about in-flight amenities.

But the thrill was gone. The mystery was gone. My youth and innocence and excitement were gone, I expected no surprises or adventures, no mysterious language, no fear, no wonder. I was just another old dude on an airplane going to visit his wife’s family in Japan.

Despite the iPhone plug-in and the seatback videos, I busied myself with a couple of books, paper ones, and made notes, also on paper, with a pen. The grown man next to me immersed himself in cartoons and cheap red wine. And no one was smoking …

I’m thirty years older, twenty pounds fatter, countlesss eyeglass prescriptions blinder, my brother is dead, my immortal brother, my father is in his eighty-first year, and the people I’m going to visit, strangers then, are old family now, not least of whom is my wife’s grandmother, who is also a great-grandmother, and now at 100 years is a great-great-grandmother.

I gnaw at the old bone hoping for a taste of marrow, knowing it isn’t there, but hoping for at least a scent, however faint, of what was, even though the Narita we’re landing at is no longer set in an ocean of rice fields, and is no longer surrounded by armed guards fearing a terrorist attack by farmers whose land was confiscated to make the runway. Confiscation is now the order of things, especially the democracies in name only, like theirs, like ours.

But people still farted on planes and babies howled on and off for eleven hours straight and flight attendants looked bored and vaguely angry at those of us in steerage and though Japan was no longer a haven for draft dodgers it was still a refuge for those who had come in the 80’s to the new Paris and instead of coming home with Picasso and Stein and Hemingway they returned with sushi and ceramics and wives and Hello Kitty. We created no literature or art and brought to Japaan instead poorly taught English to marginally willing learners.

I sat in my seat, 36F, reading a stunned post-election New Yorker and an enraged Economist; in 1987 I read neither and spent the time instead immersed in Eleanor Harz Jorden’s  “Beginning Japanese,” which for me might as well have been ending Japanese, too.

Time hadn’t changed its propensity to crawl inside an airplane cabin. Five hours to go was five thousand or five billion. United no longer even pretended that people read; the seaatback pockets had an emergency manual and a Duty Free catalogue. All you needed to do was survive and shop, and even the catalogue was an anachronism–the man next to me had brought his own customized shopping catalogue of nothing but shoes, and happily killed hours gazing at them.

Then I had graduated from college with three years of Chinese; our textbook was the old green Pratical Chinese Reader published by the Communists. Now I was still on Book 3, though the PCR had been updated, glosssified, CD-ified, and pricified as you’d expect from the New China. I wondered if Trump would be renotiating that deal, too, replacing it with good old-fashioned Rust Belt know-how about Chinese grammar. If nothing else it proved I really was moving in place.

I killed an hour by the toilets talking with an “Asia hand” in his 60s who spent half the year in various Asian countries. He had fifteen whole years under his belt and bragged about being able to speak bits of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Russian, Japanese, and Spanish. “I love foreign cultures and have devoted my life to it. It’s really important to know other languages when you visit a country for the hookers.”

America …

In the immigration line the same people tried to cut the queue and the entry permit cards hadn’t changed. The same immigration officers looked dreadfully bored in the same tiny cubicles but they were efficiently bored, at least.

We reached my in-laws’ home at 9:00 PM. A wonderful home-cooked meal awaited. We hadn’t seen each other in five years and it was good to be back. The same kotatsu, the same soft futon, the same tatami floors, and the same deep, hot bath to wash the miles away.

Just like it had always been.



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§ 14 Responses to Back to my future

  • debster822 says:

    That reminds me of our first trip to the Republic of Korea, mid-January, 1983, with my husband and 6-wk. old daughter. We lived there 17 months. Our daughter was bilingual. We had to leave the country every 3 months to get our passport stamped, and we’d take long weekends to stay with our British/Japanese friends who lived in Kobe. I’d never lived in a foreign land before. I highly recommend it. Thanks for the memories.

  • Winemaker says:

    Interesting coincidence! I have been reading a number of papers about Japanese cultural changes since 1850. Wow.
    Commodore Perry really mucked things up, didn’t he?
    Anyway, here is a short good read from the Asian Pacific Journal:

  • Toronto says:

    This is exciting. I have a penchant for travel blogs.

  • Waldo says:

    Explains why this post showed up at 4:00pm instead of 4:00am. Enjoy the trip.

  • Winemaker says:

    Thanks Wanky! Good writing….For a brief read on Japan’s ‘situation in the 80 or 90 years prior to WWII, read this:

  • Hello Seth,

    The long runs in the countryside around Narita ….. once I got lost on an overcast day … and did not get back to the hotel until dark …. and too tired to run anymore …… I was cold.

    We stayed at the Northwest Airlines compound and hotel, ate at the various restaurants around Narita … the ‘yellow awning’ was a favorite.

    Swam in some of the pools at hotels and spas near Narita.

    I kept a bike there in the hotel … shared with another pilot. He flew a different schedule than me so it was almost always available. Once in awhile I would get it and find it had a new tire or something else that I was meaning to fix.

    I am not a fan of ‘taking the lane’ but on those narrow roads if you did not ….. you got forced into the ditch …. politely …… gomenasai ….. although the Japanese were very careful drivers and I don’t recall of anyone of our group of cyclists ever being hit there.

    I remember the trucks with lights on top of the cab indicating if they were speeding …. to make it easy for cops to ticket them …. such logical thinking.

    We gradually got into the habit of drinking green tea and Asahi and Sappporo beer in giant sized quart bottles …. even though it turned your eyes bright red the next day …. We decided that was probably because it was not refrigerated …. but rather the bottles were stored in wooden cases behind the restaurant …. in the sun. (Kirin was the good stuff …. didn’t made your eyes red.)

    We used to fly over the barrier banner the farmers erected at the end of the runway.

    That was all after Narita opened … prior to that for several years we flew into Haneda which is close to downtown Tokyo. We stayed at some different hotels …. some very plush ones near the Imperial Palace at first ….. then settled into the Ginza Tokyu which became our home away from home.

    With the exchange rate dollar to yen we lived high on the hog in the early days ….. eating steak at Suhiro’s ….. but as time passed we gradually moved from steak to soup noodles and actually liked it …… as the green tea and beer did not change ……. and was always good.

    One of our meteorologists, Charlie, had been a kamikaze pilot. He had the ‘going away’ party and was scheduled to fly the next day. The war ended. He was saved. Great guy, always happy, every day was a good day for him …. and for you too if you were in his company.

  • GT says:

    sent = scent
    Japaan = Japan
    3 decades from 1987 = 2007

    Did blogbot write this 9 years ago? Time to upgrade blogbot I think.

  • Seal says:

    You shouldn’t be eating at the back of the bus like that.

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