We and the ten students we chaperoned left Japan late Sunday morning and arrived in Cleveland Sunday afternoon. The kids into time travel/teleporting got off on this, and I thought of fairy tales where a character returns from legions of extraordinary adventures only to find a single second of real life has elapsed. The rational side of me feebly tried to erect a few thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and time, but it was no use. We’d been away, very far away, and that was all.
Japan is beautiful, spooky, gracious. Japan is not America. Our first afternoon there we wandered outside the village where we did home stay and up into the mountains, through a misty bamboo grove, past a graveyard where the faces of the Buddhas were worn to masks, and stopped to smell the gardenias blooming on a bush the size of a Volgswagen. The flowers and gardens–moss, stone, water–I understood, but again and again Paul and I caught ourselves speculating on what, exactly, we were looking at, everything from the symbolism of the shrines to the bottles in the vending machines (the vending machines! they’re everywhere, and we developed favorites–the dark, sweet, iced coffee called Boss as well as CC Lemon, which claimed to pack the vitamin C of 70 lemons into every bottle). As valiantly as Paul had tried to learn the language, that, too, was nearly impenetrable. I have long quoted Rilke’s “Try to lead the uninterpreted life,” and for two and a half weeks we had little choice.
We’ve never met kinder, more considerate people. Warning: never ask for directions unless you can handle a person dropping everything and escorting you two or three blocks. Even in wild, stylish Tokyo, there’s a civil sort of hush over things. People dress so beautifully, always in muted colors–grays, beiges, black. Women laugh behind their hands. The workers all wear uniforms, and the taxi drivers cover the seats of their cabs with doilies. Though finding a trash can is nearly impossible, you never see a speck of garbage on the sidewalks, and I wondered if everyone we passed had a wadded up candy wrapper or crushed pop can stowed in their stylish bags. Paul claimed even the crows–lord, the size of those crows!–were less raucous than their American counterparts. As soon as I got home, I re-read “Crow Boy”, one of my all-time favorite picture books and now all the more moving.
I scratched the surface of Japanese mythology, but want to know more. Each Shinto shrine honored some deity–we saw statues of foxes, mice, Buddhas wearing baby bibs. Japan is a country of festivals, because the Shinto gods, rather than be adored, prefer being entertained. Everyone told us to come back in the fall, when the mountains rage with color.
The students were terrific travelers and outdid me in their adventurousness. The girls bought Lolita costumes. On the last night they all went to a public bath we found down a tiny Tokyo alley. My only complaint is that I’d forgotten how much teenagers eat. Having ten kids suddenly turn to you and say “What’s for dinner?” is sweat-inducing. By the end everyone’s money was running out–did I mention that Japan is crazy expensive?–and one night Zach, in an effort to economize, ordered the cheapest thing on the menu at a noodle shop. It turned out to be cold soba with a raw egg on top. He ate it.
We’re back. But one suitcase is still only partly unpacked. I want to keep one foot (in a house, not street, shoe) back there still.