On November 14, 2006, after chasing the sun across the Pacific for nearly fourteen hours, I touched down at Kansai International Airport, just south of Osaka, Japan, in the pitch dark, and stood for the first time on non-American soil. I was now in the Nippon-koku, Land of the Rising Sun.I was traveling with a Japanese-American family, Shu and Masako Takyama and their son, Daniel. We were met at the airport by Masako’s parents, whose names I never learned.
From first sight, I knew that this couple epitomized all that is traditional in Japanese living. They shuffled slowly along, the wife a few steps behind the husband, and when I introduced myself in halting, formal Japanese, I instinctively addressed myself to the husband. Masako looked proudly on this exchange, pleased that her careful tutoring had paid off.
She wanted me to feel comfortable, and she wanted her parents to be impressed by her American ‘daughter.’We were to be staying for a few nights in their home, and despite everything I had read or heard about Japanese culture, entering this lifestyle was still a challenge. I had to remove my shoes in the genkan area by the door, and put on a pair of house slippers, to be worn in the rooms with hardwood or tiled surfaces. The slippers were to be left at the door of the bathrooms, and rooms with traditional tatami mat flooring.
We slept on futons, and played advanced Japanese video games while kneeling on floor cushions next to the household ancestral shrine. In this world, it was the traditional and the modern mixed all the time. Breakfast consisted of Japanese yogurt and strange, exotic fruits, with buttered toast from an American-made toaster.
As is typical, the toilet was located in a room separate from the ofuro bath and shower. But the toilet itself was a $4000 machine equipped with a control panel, heated seat, and bidet.We spent our days touring local attractions, such as Horyuji and Tofukuji Temples, ancient, beautiful and timeless, as well as trying to blend into Osaka’s metropolitan shopping district, where the ‘department stores’ were stuffed full of designer boutiques and beautiful Japanese girls enviously admired my natural brown hair. From the Nara/Osaka region, after a brief two-day stopover at a tiny, traditional inn in Kyoto, we hopped on the shinkansen bullet train towards Tokyo, arriving in Saitama, a residential, Westernized area, with breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji at sunset.
Here, we would be staying with Shu’s parents. My arrival here was so different from my arrival in Nara that I wasn’t quite sure how to handle myself. When I walked through the door, I was greeted with a beaming smile and warm hug from Mrs.
Takyama, who spoke English and insisted that I call her ‘Grandma.’ We gathered for a dinner of delicious peppered rice balls and tempura vegetables as the elder Takyamas quizzed me about my life in America so that they might practice their English. Afterwards, Daniel showed me card tricks while sumo wrestling played on TV and we tucked our legs under a kotatsu table (coffee table with a heater underneath and blankets hanging down to containthe heat). Much of the understanding and admiration for this country and its people that I gained came from the photographs I took. In 565 pictures, I developed a complete record of my travels and the emotions I felt as I observed my surroundings.
From an image of Osaka city reflected in the window of the Armani boutique, to Grandma feeding some forty swans in the early morning at the riverbank, everything was there in my camera, waiting to be discovered over and over again after I was back home in America.
I continue to gain more appreciation of Japanese culture and tradition as I look back and share my experiences.Traveling to Japan opened my mind to the knowledge and understanding of different cultures and ways of life. I grasped that the Eastern and Western worlds can coexist and set aside our differences because, despite our vastly unlike traditions and histories, we share the same human qualities of compassion and curiosity.
My trip was an incredible experience, and the beginning of a whole new mindset for me as I learn more about this infinitely wonderful world.
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