Essay by Diane Wojtowicz
We stand under the awning as the August monsoon makes its late appearance. The restaurants temporarily closed as soon as the clouds come rolling in, except for this little opening in a restaurant annex from which a native of Takayama is selling beverages. We order two Asahi and laugh at our luck for being at this specific corner when the rain began pelleting the ground. A black flag with white conji, most likely the name of the restaurant, waves in the wind above us and I snap a striking photo of my husband, PJ, deep in thought. His long red beard and bright blue eyes stand out against the Japanese landscape. Steve is sitting on a bench next to a local a third his size. The man wears large sunglasses and underneath them rests a permanent smile of amusement as my brother speaks a little of the language he has learned after living in Nagoya for the past three and a half years. I again immortalize the moment as the man makes a thumbs up sign and Steve throws the traditional Japanese gesture for photos, a peace sign. After a dramatic run into the rain to feel it on my skin and in my hair, I settle into the moment to let its rhythms cement my realization that I am halfway around the globe with my brother and husband standing under the awning of a little restaurant on the corner of 'God knows where' and 'What the love?', the latter a phrase we coined and reserved for surreal moments that left us confounded.
We put no expectations on our time in Japan, making tentative plans that usually remained untouched after waking up to the early morning sun. For example, before we arrived to visit my brother and his wife, we thought that we would visit the museum in Hiroshima. You know, something that all people should do if they're in Japan. I wanted to go there, but knew in my heart that it would disturb me deeply and spark a chain of thought that I would not be able to grasp—the kind of thoughts that resonate for years and process like aging wine, all the while waiting in subconscious torment to be tapped. I'm not sure if I was ready for that sort of commitment. Hiroshima did not happen. Taking its place was the train ride up into the mountains and an overnight stay in the holy city of Kyoto. Following the snaking river that lazily made its way to Takayama and running my fingers along 1500 year old woodgrain of Buddhist temples in Kyoto were introductions that in retrospect should be made anyway before abruptly opening the shower door on Hiroshima. These short trips complemented spontaneous days in Nagoya where we did less sightseeing and more living.
Nagoya had similarities to any big city in a modern developed nation. We had our choice of international restaurants from American bar and grills to authentic Spanish, Brazilian, or Thai cuisine. I would wake up in the mornings and meander down to Starbucks for coffee with my friend Brent who had joined us for a portion of the trip. He'd order a venti soy vanilla latte and I a café Americano with a shot of caramel. The realization that we were halfway around the world would only strike when we would throw away our garbage and be confronted with Japan's precise system for trash disposal that would surely gain Al Gore's stamp of approval. From the beginning we would have to peek into the trash can at its contents to confirm what we were doing; dump excess liquids in the middle, lids and creamers in the opening to the right, paper cup next one over, stirrer and peeled off tops from creamer in the one above. After several days, we no longer needed help from one of the smiling, patient Starbucks' employees. It is like this everywhere in Japan. Though there are hardly any public trash cans, there is also no litter. The streets are clean and exude an air of national pride and self-respect. The environment of the city was clearly a reflection of the people who had obvious, deeply ingrained values. Nobody ever stared at us, though we were clearly out of place and we never came across even a taxi driver who was outwardly impatient with us. This alone was culture shock.
On the other hand, we did our best during our days in Nagoya to fit in. My husband took on an air of politeness and patience that was different to me. We walked to Osu, 50 acres of narrow, carless streets reserved for a variety of Japanese boutiques to sell their food, pottery, glassware, and clothing. Before the main entrance is a central square where men in black pants and white dress shirts on a break from work feed the pigeons under the landscape of tall black and white flags rippling down the steps of the temple. A giant Buddha overlooks the serenity of the moment. My sister-in-law is with us this first time and we are on the lookout for cute tops and accessories she can wear in place of her American jeans and t-shirts. Many of the shops in Osu cater to the typical Japanese women who always appear in public dressed up, accessorized with eye-catching shoes, scarves, or hats. After a while the items in the shops begin to all look the same to me and so do their prices. I look for a place to rest, but there is none. We somehow exit onto a city street and decide to wander around the corner, where my husband finds a Japanese style garage sale. He spends two hours sifting through boxes and bartering with a man who has permanently bent shoulders, grey hair, and reminds me of Mr. Miagi. We return home with three antique sake jugs that we later find out are pre-WWII. My husband, an avid antique collector, is elated.
Our last day in Nagoya my husband and I independently make our way to a Catholic church. Kathy has written down basic words for us to say to the taxi driver to direct him. I do my best to imitate my brother when we are in the car. We arrive at a brick building called MikoKoro. On the third floor is the church, a simple area with a piano in back, wooden pews, and a small wooden altar. The congregation is mostly Filipino with a sprinkling of white Europeans who work or are visiting there and a few Japanese families. A young lady approaches me and asks me to lector and I am honored. After church, my husband and I walk home. We attended an afternoon mass and now the main street is beginning to fill up with food vendors for a festival. Lights are being strung along the tree line. Many people are already walking about, and I stop to buy a pineapple on a stick to tide me over until evening.
After the sun comes down, we return to the festival with Steve and Kathy. The modern youth street dancers that usually enliven the area have been replaced for the night by traditional belly dancers who sway under bright lights. Men in black and white yukatas with red belts drum and drum and drum. Spectators gather around each group of entertainers that line the street for blocks. Soon a parade of young people comes through chanting, carrying a statue of a God I did not recognize on a platform surrounded by four young women in traditional robes. Every so often they hoist the statue and women into the air. I get accidentally caught up in the crowd trying to take a picture. I laugh as I make my way back to my family. I am filled with a sense of wonder and peace, not trying to understand what's going on around me, knowing that's impossible. I am content simply existing in the present moment. Then a man in a white uni-tard with freckles and red circles painted on his cheeks walks by us. I look at my brother and we give each other a look that says, "What the love?" And so it is that I returned home to America the next day, a little in love, but hardly familiar with Japan.
Diane Wojtowicz is a Clio resident who teaches writing, writes to learn, and travels to grow her imagination. Along with her family (including furry ones), time abroad in India, Australia, and Japan has most influenced her stories, poetry, and essays.
© Diane Wojtowicz, 2009