Japan, China (1983)

                                              Jill’s Japanese World

After receiving her MBA from Thunderbird, Jill went to Japan for a year to teach English. Val and I flew over to visit her mid-way through her stay to see her, to explore her world and to take a side trip to Hong Kong and mainland China.

japan1.jpg (85537 bytes)

    The Giant Buddha at Kamakura                                                                                                                                    The Heian Shrine at Kyoto

Tokyo. Just as two years ago she had emerged from the crowd at the Athens airport, Jill appeared in the crowd outside customs at the Tokyo airport. Even with her new curly hair style, she wasn’t hard to spot in the crowd. I’m not saying that she stood out above the crowd . . but, at least, she was the same height as the rest of them . . . and it was great to see her.

Driving into the city from the airport we got our first taste of Saturday Night Live in Tokyo and after checking into the hotel we jumped into a cab and headed to the nearest sushi bar for our first experience with the raw fish menu that we would come to know so well for the next two weeks. Watching Jill communicating with the cab driver, the sushi-man and others in the bar gave us our first indication of how far she’d progressed in learning the language since she arrived six months before. Jill shared our room in the hotel and said she didn’t mind sleeping on the floor since she’d been doing it routinely since she arrived in Japan. Sunday morning we walked down to and around the Imperial Palace at the center of Tokyo and then took a train to Kamakura to see the famous bronze Buddha. It was a pleasant day for an outing and we mingled with throngs of Tokyoites, who’d come for a visit to the many shrines in the vicinity. Jill introduced us to a sweet bean soup for lunch . . . a local specialty and very good. After an afternoon of wandering to different shrines we took the train back to Tokyo in time for dinner at the Winslows, the American family in Tokyo who had hosted Jill and her roommate, Julie, at Christmas.

Valerie and I first met Chuck and Nan Winslow in grad school. Jill and their first-born, Charlie, were born a few days apart at the University of Michigan hospital, and Mom and Nan had rooms down the hall from each other. Chick and I had several accounting classes together. Chuck now runs Arthur Anderson’s Tokyo office and lives in a $ 5,000 a month apartment in the center of Tokyo. We had a great evening with lots to talk about and it was hard to believe that it had been twenty-three years since we were last together. Jill left us after dinner and took the train back to Ueda arriving home the next morning at 5 a.m.

The next four days I did business in Tokyo, both at our 3M locations and at several Japanese film and film-making equipment suppliers. The meetings were productive but marked with a formality you don’t see in the U.S. . . with business card exchanges, tea and obsequies an important part of the agenda, and concluded with a Japanese-style luncheon featuring sashimi (raw fish). I think it may have been a test of Americans. I passed.

Meanwhile, Val took several side trips on her own: to Nikko, with its beautiful shrines set among the forests and lakes north of Tokyo and to Lake Hakone at the foot of Mount Fuji. Tuesday night we had dinner with the Winslows again in a German restaurant and on Wednesday Val spent the day shipping with Nan at the fisherman’s wharf and at the Oriental bazaar. On Wednesday night, our last night in Tokyo, we went to a Kabuki play, a traditional and stylized drama which is a cross between Shakespeare and opera and which goes on for hours. We enjoyed it but only stayed for four hours.

On Thursday afternoon we took the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) to Nagoya for an overnight there. It is a beautiful, wide-bodied train (five seats across) which reaches speeds of 130 mph. Within an hour -and-a-half we had covered the almost two hundred miles to Nagoya. While Val toured the famous Nagoya castle, I visited the Mitsubishi plant in town and by early afternoon we were heading on the Nagano Express to Ueda and into Jill’s world.

Jill’s World. The Eiken English School offices were near the train station and located in a building housing, of all things, a Big Ben restaurant. The staff made us comfortable and after a few minutes Jill arrived from her last class of the day. She took us to dinner at a Nepalese restaurant ("the only Nepalese restaurant in Japan") run by a Nepalese woman friend of Jill’s . . . and from there to Jill and Julie’s favorite disco where we met Julie and a bunch of their friends. It was a fun group and somehow I ended up at the electric piano jamming with the house band. And then home with Jill and Julie.

Their house is typically Japanese . . . about the size of our garage with two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and bath. The construction is wood frame. The doors and windows are paper-covered sliding panels and the floors, with the exception of the kitchen and bath, are tatami mats. Of course, you remove your shoes when you enter. There are a table and chairs in the kitchen, two easy chairs in the living room but absolutely no furniture at all in the bedrooms. The bedding is brought out at night and put away in the morning. The place is heated with two space heaters and the question is who has to get out from under the feather-quilt (futon) first in the morning to turn the heat on. The bath was a tub heated by a gas burner underneath it and the toilet a traditional in-floor facility. But to Jill and Julie it was home . . . and they are totally happy and comfortable there . . . and so were Val and I.

japan2.jpg (110161 bytes)

leaping on the Floor                                                                                     Jill's House                                                                 Japanese Bride

Saturday morning we met Kyoko, a woman in her fifties and a student of Jill’s for some sightseeing around Ueda. Ueda is situated in a wide valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains on three sides and we went up into the hills to see an old Buddhist temple and a second shrine with a three storied pagoda. After dropping Kyoko off we went back up into the mountains to the nearby Bessho spa, where the three of us spent the night in a Japanese inn (or ryokan) famous for its hot springs baths.

Staying in a ryokan is a singular experience. Your room is both your dining room and your bedroom and a woman is in almost constant attendance to bring you your tea, your dinner, your bed and the next morning, your breakfast . . . all in your room.

We were the only Westerners at the ryokan and relied completely on Jill for translations as she maintained a running conversation with our attendant from the time we arrived to the time we left. The dinner was considered typical . . . almost too typical. By then the raw fish, rice and miso soup were seeming normal . . until the woman brought in the fried grasshoppers and worm tempura. Even if you can get used to these things for dinner, it’s hard to work up an appetite for them again at breakfast.

The featured attraction, though, were the hot baths, with the men separated from the women by a large panel so as I soaked at my end, I could talk to Val and Jill, who were chattering away on the other side. After an hour or so in and out of the hot mineral waters, we were ready for our futons and sleep came easily. We left the ryokan by mid-morning to return to Jill’s and it was there that we received John’s telephone call saying that Val’s mother had died. We felt a long, long way from home at that moment.

Jill’s boss had arranged a big dinner that evening in one of the local restaurants with all his employees and their spouses invited. It was another great dinner and a fun group . . . and it was clear that it was a very close group including Jill and Julie.

We moved from the restaurant to a bar later in the evening which featured karaoke, the latest fad in Japan, involving a sound system and mike which allows you to sing your favorite song through an amplifier backed by a full instrumental accompaniment. Everyone is a Caruso in Japan.

On Monday we accompanied Jill to her English lesson at the JRC Company, a medium sized manufacturer of medical devices . . . and then to a private lesson for the wife of the owner of the school, where Jill and Val stayed for lunch. Jill had arranged for us to visit a wedding chapel in the afternoon run by another of her students and we peeked in at a wedding ceremony underway while Jill’s friend explained the ceremony to us.

Jill had a third and fourth class that day back at the school with ten to twelve grade-schoolers, whose parents wanted them to improve their English in preparation for the very competitive college entrance exams they would face later on. Jill ran a fast paced but well disciplined classroom inserting occasional games like boys against the girls in hangman to keep their attention and interest level up. She involved Val and me by inviting the kids to ask us questions in English (after explaining that we were too dumb to understand Japanese). Jill has an infectious enthusiasm when she teaches and really does a super job.

[japan3.jpg (78312 bytes)

Jill Teaching at School                                                                                                                            Jill's Adult Students - "The Giggle Sisters"

We were invited to dinner that night at the home of still another of Jill’s students, a woman and her sister in their late thirties. Jill calls them the Giggle Sisters. I now understand why. All we did was giggle all evening. You’ll understand how silly it was if I tell you that the "joke" that E.T. stands for English Teacher was good for a five minute giggle . . . but the food was great and it was fun. Guess what they pulled out after dinner? Yep, a karaoke . . . and everybody sang again in turn. More giggles.

On Tuesday Jill and Julie take tea ceremony lessons. The Japanese tea ceremony is the simple act of serving tea to guests . . . but it is highly ritualized and involves considerable mental discipline. Val and I were the invited guests and Jill served up green tea while her teacher looked on stoically but approvingly. The ceremony lasted the better part of two hours and , if you let yourself get into it, it can become a very pleasant and even tranquilizing experience. Again we accompanied Jill to another factory and then back to school for three more English groups, and again we were impressed with her teaching skills. They call her Sensei (teacher) much in the way that the Italians use Maestro as a title of respect and, in fact, several of her groups have already given her beautiful (and expensive) gifts as tokens of their appreciation.

After her last class we took Jill and Colin Forrest, her Australian chum and fellow teacher, out to dinner for shabu-shabu in a local restaurant where they planned Jill’s next adventure . .. her trip to Australia. We left Jill at the train station in Ueda the next morning and headed for Kyoto as Jill disappeared back into the crowd. It was an unforgettable five days in Ueda and we saw and experienced things most tourists to Japan never see . . . thanks to that brief glimpse into Jill’s world.

Kyoto The innkeeper and his wife were waiting for us in Kyoto. Our ryokan was an excellent choice, central and overlooking the Kamo River. The food and service were much like the ryokan in Ueda but we did opt for the "Western" breakfast, having had our fill of fish breakfasts by then. Reflecting on the ryokans, the hot towels and tea at each arrival, the relaxing hot tubs and the snuggly futons are all nice touches that you sure don’t get in the local Holiday Inns in the U.S.

We took the orientation tour of Kyoto and Nara on the first day, which took us to such places as the Shogun's (Nijo) castle, the Old Imperial Palace and the Golden Pavilion, and in Nara to the Todaiji Temple in Deer Park with its fifty foot Buddha inside the world’s largest wooden building and to Kasuga (Lantern) shrine. We had good guides and it’s a great way to get an exposure to the area as well as some history.

The second day, though, we took off on our own on the local buses and went to the Kitano shrine, where they were celebrating the plum blossom festival. Almost as if on command the pink and white plum blossoms were in full bloom for our arrival. Most of Kyoto was there to photograph the blossoms, to have tea served with full ceremony by costumed geisha and to be blessed by the Shinto priests. It was a great morning, with only one or two other tourists there, and a great spot for taking pictures.

In the afternoon we visited the Heian shrine and gardens, the Sanjusangendo shrine with its 1001 Buddhas and the old Kiyomiza shrine up on the hillside overlooking the city of Kyoto. Two days certainly are not enough time to start to do justice to a place like Kyoto but at least we captured some of the flavor. On Saturday, we jumped the Shinkansen back to Tokyo (300 miles in less than three hours). The ride featured a glimpse of Fujiyama as we zipped by. Val hadn’t seem Mount Fuji on her trip to Hakone due to snow, so now she can say that she has. From Tokyo we took the night plane to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong and Red China. Few cities in the world are more exciting than Hong Kong. It has really changed since I was last there twenty-five years ago with literally hundreds of new, tall buildings. The amazing thing is that the construction is still going on despite the fact that the island will revert back to China in only fourteen more years. Another big difference is the tunnel between Hong Kong and Kowloon. When I was there in the late 50s, there was only the Star Ferry connecting the island with the mainland. Slower, perhaps, but infinitely more scenic.

Again on the first morning we took the orientation tour . . . up the cable car for a view of the harbor (except that it was hidden by a pea-soup fog), around the island to Repulse Bay, and to Aberdeen, where we took a thirty minute ride on a sampan through the floating village. After lunch, we took the Star Ferry to Kowloon, where we had our first taste of the fabled Hong Kong shopping. Only the size of our suitcases limited our purchases. February 27th was the Lantern Festival, celebrated on the last day of the Chinese New Year, and we went to the Sung Dynasty Village for a special program which included dancing, martial arts, acrobats and ended with a twelve course meal.

japan4.jpg (110211 bytes)

  Hong Kong Rickshaw                                                                                                                                         Floating Restaurant - "Jumbo"

On Monday, Val had her first ride in a rickshaw (from the hotel to the ferry landing) and then we went back to Kowloon for more shopping. After lunch, we hopped aboard one of Hong Kong’s famous double-decker streetcars for a one hour ride through the center of the city to the end of the line. The ride costs ten cents and the sights you see from the upper deck windows are worth a thousand times the price of admission. We took a cab through the mountains to Stanley for their straw market and then bussed back to Repulse Bay in time for tea. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and a few people were swimming in the bay. From Repulse Bay we got back on our bus to Aberdeen, were we ferried out to the famous floating restaurant for our dinner of lemon duck and chicken with cashew nuts. But we saved our biggest adventure for the final day of our trip.

Up early, we caught the 7:30 hydrofoil for the seventy-five minute ride to Macau, where we were met by our tour guide and bus for our day trip into Red china. The trip covered about seventy-five miles and took us to the town of Shiqui in the province of Zhongshan. The roads were pot-holed and washed out from the rains so travel was painfully slow . . . but the sights along the way were fantastic . . . farmers knee-deep in the mud in the rice paddies behind their water buffalo, carp farms, Peking duck farms and commune -villages, barren and desolate, every ten miles or so along the road. We stopped at a model school founded by Dr. Sun Yet Sen, father of modern China, and were even allowed to take pictures of the kids in the classrooms, uniformed and two to a desk, in a undecorated and unlighted classrooms. We also toured his home, which is now a museum of sorts.

japan5.jpg (67888 bytes)

     Valerie Meets the Red Guards                                                                                  Farmers and their Water Buffalo Preparing the Rice Fields

The city of Shiqui . . . although a city of 100,000 inhabitants . . . was as desolate as the villages, without paved roads except for a few streets in the center of town. The shops were uninviting, each with only a few items for sale. We had an hour to wander freely through the town and found the people surprisingly friendly and courteous. Valerie  brought a few dishes but there really wasn’t much on which to spend money . Perhaps the biggest (and the most gruesome) attraction was the dog shop, where dozens of puppies were being fattened in cages. We saw one dispatched but I’m not sure Marnie and Katherine will want to see those particular slides. We had an excellent Chinese meal in a newly-built restaurant, opened exclusively for tourists . . but other than that one restaurant, most of rest of the city was pretty grim.

It’s still hard to assimilate all that we saw in our day in China. On one hand, the people are surely better off than they were before the revolution in terms of their daily needs . . . but when you consider the restrictions they fact in terms of job, travel, location, family size (one family, one child), it really must be a desperate life that they live. 

Epilog.  A few hours later we were back again on the top floor restaurant of the Hong Kong Hilton, overlooking the lights of the harbor below, and wondering how the two worlds could even be reconciled.

After the candlelight dinner, and the wine, the band played "Love is a Many Splendored Thing", which was ‘our song’ back those twenty-five years ago when I was a young lieutenant come to Hong Kong to buy some white silk for a wedding dress for a pretty, little Canadian nurse, who had promised to marry me when I returned from the Orient. Am I making this sound too much like a novel . . . but then I guess that I always have been an incurable romantic.

Return to Travelogues