April 21st ~ Notes from Japan #9: Home in Kyoto

Dear Friends,

I’ve finally returned home to Kyoto.  I’m only here for an afternoon and night before going to Nagoya for events and conferences for the weekend.  But this place is home.  I arrived this afternoon and had a long and lovely conversation with my 83 year old Japanese father before settling into the rooms we use when here.  Fragrance of spring blossoms in the spring air.  I just feel the tension I didn’t realize I was carrying melt away.  My Japanese father’s favorite song is Stardust Melody.  A little over a year ago, when he almost died, I found almost 200 different versions of this little song.

I first arrived in Japan in late August of 1970, a senior in college.  I had left the US in disgust and despair after the bombings began in Cambodia and the National Guard murdered four students at Kent State.  An anti-war activist, I was just burned out and a door opened to come to Japan.  My heart and spirit began to open here in many ways.  A critical pathway in that opening was my relationship with the Nakatsugawa family.  I was attending Waseda University in Tokyo and a college classmate of mine who was living in Kyoto encouraged me to come visit her.  When I visited, in one uproarious evening the parents and their two teen and preteen daughters started to bond, and I met the grandfather of my heart.  He was 71 and I was 21.  His son has been the only grandfather our daughter has known.  And it was him, now 83, who I returned to this afternoon.

The Kansai Area — Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara — is west and a bit south of Tokyo.  A different electrical grid, a different set of teutonic plates, it is removed from the disasters.  But the emotional current is still present.  My Otoosan spoke of the Japanese word mottainai which translates roughly as “don’t be wasteful,” but means much more.  It carries a humility, a sense of “this is more than we deserve.”  It is part of a spirit of relatedness to all that lives now, as all that has lived before.  And even more than that.  Everything — everything — has spirit.  A mountain, a blade of grass, the person across the field.  All is to be cherished.  So Otoosan and and I talked about how, even when I first arrived in Japan, if you were cold in the winter, you took a hot bath, put on more clothes, drank hot tea, and sat around a small pit with a charcoal fire.  In the summer if you were too hot, you took off more clothes and used your hand to wave a beautiful fan.

Even now, so much of this same spirit is still present.  Last week I went into a Starbucks with a friend and made my usual order of a three shot, non-fat latte and mentioned to her the difficulty I always have making myself be understood.  She laughed and said of course.  In America you all operate from a ‘I want what I want’ perspective.  Here we are thankful for what we are offered.  I never understood that my customized latte orders were just incomprehensible — and it wasn’t just my Japanese!  Relationships.  Acceptance.

Back to Otoosan.  So we kept talking about how first there was the recovery from the war.  There was a following of American ways because, after all, American was the victor.  But then it just kept going on and on.  Consumption for its own sake and more and more harried lives divorced from family and nature became the norm.  He too is thinking that the 3/11 disasters may be a wake-up call for Japan to change directions.

Things feel more “normal” in Kyoto.  Not the same subdued energy present now in Tokyo.  Of course, Kyoto is on a different teutonic plate than Tokyo (there are two major earthquake fault lines in Japan) and this one is not shaking like Tokyo, where tremors have become the norm rather than an exception.

Tonight at dinner the television was running in the background, as it often does.  The evening news is still dominated by the disasters.  Tonight, the news focused on Ishinomaki-City, where I was on Sunday.  It actually pictured what looked like the same area.  Having been there so recently, I saw that the television footage did not do it justice.  There simply is no way that video can illustrate destruction as wide as this.  Just no way.  So as we ate, I was sharing my impressions and images — which were greeted with astonishment.

My japanese host grandfather died 22 years ago, shortly after we were here for New Year’s with our not quite 2 year old daughter.  It is strange to realize he’s been gone so long and that I only knew him as a living grandfather for 17 years.  They were precious years for me.  He loved Japanese temples and their art and architecture.  Together we visited hundreds of temples in this region over the years.  Among other things, he was a doctor.  In the later years of his life — he practiced medicine until he died at 88 — he explained that he was seeing people through to the end of their lives.  I learned so much from him and continue to deeply honor his spirit.

I had planned to write notes today on the ways in which plans are beginning to form.  That will come later.  For now, it is just good to be home.



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