Japan Trip with Dad
December 10/11, 2012
Photo album is on FaceBook
In some way, this journey is a door to the world for me, witnessing the path that my Dad took alone for so many decades. It is humbling to see the way that his Japanese and Korean friends welcome him, how they honour him yet integrate him into their midst. How they respect his old age yet still remember the vibrant super hero that he was. How they quietly try to understand his cryptic humour, explaining the metaphors to one another until the laugh takes over the room. How candid they are through the veils of multiple languages (the Japanese speak English to the Koreans, some of them understand one another’s languages while not speaking them) and open about their emotions while somehow staying very calm. How much they laugh and how quietly glad Dad is to be in their company.
Originally, I did not want to make this trip, afraid of my father’s frailty, vulnerability, and forgetfulness, wondering how I would cope. I get embarrassingly crabby with him at times, and he occasionally gives in to understandable self-pity and a hint of bitterness... never towards me but just because he is still not reconciled to being old. Everything is hard, including getting dressed, let alone bending down and taking his shoes on and off whenever we enter a Japanese home. But! He never gives up for long, gamely insisting on taking off his shoes, walking as much as possible, trying to do all that he can.
This trip is a good thing; I am seeing things that I have never seen before and Dad is reconnecting to one of the most vivid and important phases of his life. Every morning I go for a run around this mountainside school that has several buildings built by the students of my father during his years in Japan. It feels like home and an entirely new world at the same time.
December 10, 2012 (during 13 hour flight from Toronto to Tokyo's Narita airport)
Dad came to Toronto on December 8 to hear my annual student Vivaldi concert. Then we had the day off for me to get organized to leave on December 10 for a week in Japan.
Dad has longed to see his old friends for many years now and it is finally happening.
We were three hours early just because I didn’t want to have to hurry Dad. He is doing well for 87 but his legs are not just strong any more. We got through everything easily, learning along the way that there is a special check-in spot for people who need extra help and that we should also have told Air Canada when we bought the ticket that Dad needed a wheelchair. Of course, Dad doesn’t want to need a wheel chair, but it sure helps. There is also a special security section for people to go through, though they still require that coats come off and that everything is thoroughly screened. For reasons that I cannot fathom, they didn’t notice the black x-acto box cutter that was in my handbag... it was for the CD sales at my last concert. I had taken the CDs out of my bag but not the knife. Amazing.
We got to our gate early and went for coffee, then I piloted the wheel chair straight up to the priority line at the gate. The really great thing about traveling with an elderly gentleman is that we get royal treatment. The trim airline clerk took the wheelchair and got Dad onto the plane before anyone else... so easy to stow our stuff and sit down! I know that it will work the other way at Tokyo but it is worth it.
The Boeing 777-300ER is as smooth as silk. We have the enormous good fortune of having a 3-seat section to ourselves as no one arrived to take the window seat. There are hundreds of movies to watch. Dad is doing his usual thing of not wanting to hear the sound... he searches until he finds a movie that he knows. Every once in awhile, he gets up. It requires an enormous effort for him to lift himself from his seat... people start looking in concern, but he never slips, doesn’t grab anyone else’s seat, and eventually is smoothly, slowly, carefully walking down the aisle. I have managed to convince him to take his pills but it has been a constant negotiation.
We are in the final 5 hours of the flight, just heading south from the Bering Sea, another mere 2362 miles to go.
Flight landed, smooth as silk, right on time. A world away and my phone shook itself awake and delivered all of my FaceBook messages, business as usual.
We waited until everyone was off the plane. Dad’s feet and legs were numb from the flight but there was a wheelchair waiting and a very classy assistant who helped us through Customs. When exited the terminal with our suitcases, tall handsome Teru (Teruyuki Nakamira) was waiting for us. Dad insisted on getting out of the wheelchair, but when we told him that it was a long walk to the restaurant area, he allowed us to get another wheelchair. We went and Dad had a beer and I had a curry, exchanged money and found some stomach antacid pills for, then we went to wait at the gate for Dai Oshino.
He was out by 6:30 or so, then we got into the big Nissan van and began driving north.
I fell asleep instantly and was unaware of the traffic jam and accidents. We stopped at a roadside house and had curry and noodles and rice and drove another couple of hours, arriving at the Woodsman Village at around 11 p.m. There are many smaller log houses and the large one in the midst over very tall Japanese cedars on what feels like mountainous terrain. A fine dusting of snow, bright stars and crisp cold air.
We went straight to the big house and met Kako Hoshino and Emako and Kuzen Hoshino (son). Dad was having a great deal of trouble getting feeling into his feet and moved very slowly. He was so happy to see them and they were a little in shock at his weakened state but quickly gathered around him.
They realized that the Principal House that they had prepared for us would be difficult since the beds were upstairs and the bathroom downstairs. The spiral stairs made out of sloping, scooped out cedar are no longer possible for Dad to navigate, soDai and Teru moved a bed downstairs for Dad.
We drove back down to Principal House and Dai lit a fire. Emako showed us how everything works... so neat and tidy. Food in the fridge... eggs, butter, bread, coffee... it is like we never left Dad’s house except that the logs are fine small cedars and the language on the packages is very different.
We went to bed and I was very cozy in my upstairs loft under feather quilts and blankets. Dad got cold when the fire went out and I heard him moving around at 4:30 a.m.... I was sure he would be fine, but in the morning learned that he had been disoriented in the dark and couldn’t find any of the light switches. After a long time, he got the fire going and was back in bed. When he told me about this in the morning, I resolved to be more alert!
Got breakfast for Dad then went for a walk around the compound, through the cedar lined path, down to the building site with the tower, up a section of the logging road.
We had lunch with Kako and Emako then Kako drove us to the incredible ancient shrine at Nikko. There are hundreds of stone steps leading from the great gate at the bottom to the ancient shrine of the first shogun on the top. Dad and Kako stayed in the car while Emiko and I went through it as quickly as possible. I knew that Dad would be fretting after 15 minutes and we were gone for an hour and 15 min. Still, it was a wonderful sensation to be able to climb the stairs at our own pace without worrying constantly about him. There was too much to see in such a short time but it was better than nothing.
On the way back, we got a coat for Dad that would be lighter and possible for him to put on by himself... his present down-filled bomber jacket is heavy and impossible for him to handle.
On top of the cold (for Dad), there was a young bat in our bathroom sink. For some reason, the little creature couldn’t fly out, and was doing kind of an overhand crawl... at first I thought it was a big grey frog, but it was a tiny bat. I put on gloves and used a small towel to gather up his wings. As I approached, he turned his little head, eyes bright, tiny muzzle open in silent terror. I had already opened the door, and though he struggled as I walked toward it, managed to get him outside. Anyway, based on that, I know know what the rustling and high-pitched squeaking sounds are that come from the ceiling over my bed!
Dad is frail and it is taking everyone a bit by surprise since they knew him as an unstoppable superhero. It is harder for him than anyone. The first night, the house was still warming up and we ran out of wood for the fire and the heater ran out of fuel. I could have walked up the road to find wood, and probably the same for the fuel, but I didn’t. Added to that, Dad cannot bear to have many blankets on his bed, not even the feather duvet, because it makes it hard for him to turn in bed. In the morning, our friends loaded up the woodpile, brought thermal longjohns for Dad (which he won’t wear), loaned us their electric blanket and showed me how to fill the kerosene heaters. Dad still gets up a few times per night to manage these heating sources and I get up if he is taking a long time or having trouble. But as always, he manages to find ways to do the tasks that he has done all of his life.
Ran for 35 minutes in the beautiful mountain morning. Played aki in the sunlight then had a bath in the wonderful high-sided, mini, rectangular tub.
Got ready for lunch... we were going to a French resto with Emiko and Kako but when we arrived at the house, learned that Emiko had food poisoning, throwing up all night and then all day. They took her to the hospital in the late afternoon for an hour and a half treatment of intravenous fluids and antibiotics. She was the only one of us to get ill so we don’t really know what caused it.
Lovely lunch of inari... deep fried tofu skins stuffed with seasoned rice, miso.
Home for a nap then practised then dinner... chicken curry. Kako is such a skilled chef, turning out delicious meals for the whole group.
Breakfast then longer run, 40 minutes switching directions halfway through. Played aki outside of Dad’s former lodging house (Rustic House, built in 1988).
Dai came for a visit andI asked about outings. Dai suggested going to see the work of Kosaka. We arranged to leave in 15 minutes, but first went up to the big house to see how Emiko was doing. While we were there, a vibrant man with a shaved head and a chartreuse down jacket and work pants came in, another former student of Dad’s, a logbuilder name Kosaka. He thought I was Dad’s girlfriend. I took it as a compliment though wondered if I really looked like I was in Dad’s age group. Whatev
Kino dropped by to show us one of his carved oak stools... exquisite traditional wave pattern carved into the surface.
We loaded into Kino’s huge Toyata van and went to a spectacularly beautiful noodle house. Dai told me that in Japan, the builder does all of the design, from the placement on the site to the final finishing details, to the actual building. The details were extraordinary. The outbuilding had sections of charred wood in the background, contrasting with a board-and-batten detail of small logs or poles cut in half and arranged at regular intervals.
The noodle house is built facing the mountain and a winding, stone-filled stream... unbelievably perfect. In front, they grew the wheat to make the soba noodles (crop done now) and at the side was a wasabi plantation... the wasabi must grow in clean running water, so the wasabi garden is terraced with channels and the water runs freely, the whole thing covered with mesh... amazing!
Then to a mountain coffee shop furnished with Kosaka’s fantastic work, surrounded by the stone gardens and walking trails that his grandfather began creating when he was 82 years old. Though the stones and ground looked dry now, apparently in monsoon season it is a torrent and waterways guide the water through the gardens, past the house and onto the roads where they rush to the stream below.
Kosaka makes splendid art doors and we saw three of them.... one a black, modern-art looking door, very high, made with reclaimed pieces from a lacquer-makers workshop... rectangles upon which articles had been set for lacquering. Gathered into a collection on the door, they look like exquisite tiles. The front handle was a piece of twisted wood (maybe like the ones I saw growing near the creek?), stained black and the inside handle was a cast piece representing an open hand, the fingers curved. Another door was mahogany coloured, many many strips of wood, undulating surface, two breasts (?) top and bottom at the ends of a sculptural curve and a piece of modern art set in glass in the front and back, the handles part of a wave formation. The final door of softly grey stained planks with an inset of sand art.... these creations defy description for me and the photos will have to help.
When I exclaimed over it all, Dai pointed out that it is a nation of talented people born of an ancient culture and critical mass in terms of population. His point that the talent is everywhere and that art is an extension of everyday life for many many people. I asked why people would ever leave such a beautiful place, and he said that not many do, yet if they do, it might be because of a certain conservatism.
Delicious lunch of leftover curry, then Dad went for a nap while I spent the afternoon with Dai and Kino... very fun, dollar store, home store, dept and groc store.
While we were driving through the countryside, I had many questions for Dai... there are buildings attached to the houses, sometimes compounds, that look like windowless temples and as if they were cut from large blocks of stone. They are store houses for all of the valuable household furnishings for holidays and for other stuff. Though they look like stone, Dai said that they are of thick plaster that allows for humidity control.
He said that many of the houses and families are two-three hundred years old... there are small family cemeteries everywhere, in deep grey cut stone, looking more like small sculpture gardens scattered across the landscape.
Dai asked if my instrument was a real one or a practise or travel; when I said it was the real thing, he suggested playing for people, saying that everyone was very interested. This is what I want to do when I travel, so I said yes!
We drove to Imiachi and first went to a dollar store. A dollar store in Japan is different than North America! I bought paper and paint brushes and oddly shaped (to me) envelopes and hankies for Dad (he said he never uses them) and shipping labels for Dad (he wants people to write their addresses so that he can mail books). Then we went to a large Canadian - Tire style home and hardware store (Gainz?) and spent an hour... there were wooden hand tools for grating horse radish and tools for crushing plums to make wine and all kinds of kitchen knives and things for all aspects of life. I got a comfortable pair of slippers for Dad because he complains about all of the small house slippers. Then we went to a large department store and I got an insulated vest for Dad, extra large (he said it is too tight and he cannot bend in it so will give it to someone else). Also bought a shirt and Tshirt with long sleeves and scarf and pants for Dad, all of which probably won’t be right. I got a light-weight down jacket for Jake in medium and now I worry that it is already too small for him since sizes are smaller in Japan. Then we went to the grocery store and I bought lots of things to try... beautiful fish in small pieces, fish paste, crunchy bean snacks, rice cracker and seaweed snacks, small chocolates for Jake and also french fry snacks. As we left the store with our bags, Kino took mine from me, graciously carrying them to his big van.
It was dark by now and we wended our way home. Everywhere we go, there are rushing streams of water and high mountains and deep forests and ancient houses.
Dai and Kino dropped me off at the house and I played a bit in anticipation of the command performance. The phone rang and Kako said dinner was ready. Dad and I slowly made our way there and many more of Dad’s former students were waiting, some crying as they greeted him. Some of these men are now nearing retirement yet they all of have the rock-and-roll good looks of people who who have lived life doing something challenging and wonderful.
Mr Zou and Mr Kim were in position, ready to make a Korean dinner, waiting for Dad to take the place of honour. They had mountains of fresh thinly sliced pork, lettuce and cabbage leaves with long, slender tiny white mushrooms... they said the dish is called Han Juop Sal... I asked because I hope I can figure out how to make it too. There was also sliced garlic, marinated sliced green onions (big strong ones) and small green pepperish things that were not too hot to dip in the Sam Jan.
After dinner, Dai Ona asked me to play for the guests, so I brought my bassoon into the kitchen and played 'man will only grieve' and Vivaldi and flight of the bumble bee. Then Mr Kim and Mr Zou sang a heartfelt song in Korean. We stayed and talked... Dad drank more soju and beer than he is used to so needed his strong friends to walk beside him as we went down the road to our house.
It was easy to start the fire and he went to bed for a few hours until it needed stoking again. Finding it very hard to get up and down but somehow still managing.
Rainy morning, warmer... went for a 45 minute run. I will miss this terrain that is both a bit challenging and very wonderful to run in. I only had to get up once last night to help keep the fire blazing. As always, my upstairs room is so hot that I am not in any need of extra heat, but must keep in mind that Dad feels the cold so strongly. It is so hard because he cannot move quickly at all which is the one thing that would keep him warm!
Today is the biggest day of the reunion week. The men have all gone to buy the meat and materials for the all night barbeque that is going to start at 3:00 p.m. Dad dressed in his new shirt and vest after all and looks good.