Its been almost ten years since I have been to Japan with my mother. I was in high school last we were there together. Not even a legal adult. Since then we have gone separately, my mom almost every summer for at least a few weeks in June and me once with my freshman college year roommate, who had studied Japanese, and then again after graduating from college. But there is something different and special about going with your mom, sharing the experience together, being able to lean on her when certain words and phrases get lost in translation, seeing her in the culture she grew up in, feeling the thread that runs from me to her and through our ancestors back to this ancient and beautiful culture. My soul had been craving all of this for some time now, but life had seemed too busy to make it happen for at least another year.
But then my grandfather, Jiji, started to show signs of Alzheimers and Dementia. And reports coming through my grandmother and aunt started to sound distressed. He was sleeping through much of the days and losing interest in his food. And some days he was unsteady on his feet. They were finding some support through a day service that they would send Jiji to twice a week, where they would bathe him and do some simple activities with him, but things did not sound too good. Eventually my grandma said to my mom, “I think you should come” and so she moved up her annual trip, leaving before her school let out to go support her family.
Traveling an Ocean
As I listened from afar to what was happening I started to realize Jiji’s time of transition might be near. And even if his physical body held out for a while yet, he may soon no longer recognize me or be someone who I really recognized. I realized I wanted to go too. And I wanted to go soon. The time I had been hoping for, to spend with my mom in Japan with Jiji, Baba, and Hiroko (my grandpa, grandma, and aunt) might have to be now or never.
And so I made it happen. And I am so glad I did. My mom was hesitant at first, saying, understandably, that she wasn’t sure she could be a mom to me and a daughter possibly losing her father at the same time. She wanted me to wait until she arrived in Japan to see how things were once she was actually there, before I bought my plane ticket. I waited. But I knew I wanted to go. And once she got there and I got the ok, and went ahead with my plans.
As I made the more than 12 hour flight to Japan I felt memories rush back as I watched parents, many of whom were one Japanese and one American, like my own, speaking to their mixed race children. My soul recognized the Japanese phrases my mom used with me, and little girls and boys that looked like they could have been my siblings stirred something deep inside. My own reservoirs of Japanese language started to flood back.
This would be the beginning of a trip filled with many ordinary but precious moments; Moments that I will cherish forever.
Arriving at my grandparents I slipped my shoes off, as we do in all Japanese houses, and gave my grandma, aunt and Jiji a hug. Dinner was ready, of course, a wonderful Japanese style meal, with each person having at least four small plates; A bowl for rice, a bowl for Miso-shiru (miso soup), a plate for salad or vegetables, and another one for maybe some meat or fish and then maybe a fifth small plate for soy sauce or other sauces. Tonight we had some yaki-tori, which is skewers of small pieces of different kinds of meat and some vegetables. It was all delicious.
After dinner I pulled out the few small gifts I had brought them- My theme for gifts was all local and made in Ithaca. A little Ithaca made keychain for my aunt, and an Ithaca made acorn designs notebook for my grandma, and some local honeyed covered nuts for my grandpa as well as some pancake mix that I would turn into pancakes for my grandpa a few days later.
I was jet lagged and tired but glad to be there.
My third morning, mostly recovered from jet lag, I made some American style pancakes for Jiji, and my mom made us all some green smoothies. And we toasted. I was glad to be there.
Some days we laughed. One day we started laughing so hard at dinner we could barely eat. It all started with a “tobi kyuuri,” or a flying cucumber and only got worse as Jiji earnestly asked if he had to pay for the meal or if it really was free. By the end who knows what we were really laughing at. I say it was the flying cucumber and my mom and grandma say it was Jiji and Hiroko says she was laughing at us. But we all laughed and it was good.
Bracko is a card game I have played since I was too small to hold all my cards in my little hands. They learned it in Brazil and brought it back with them to Japan. My mom made me a clever little card holder out of cardboard to help me hold the cards. And then when I got old enough to think I didn’t need that anymore I would lay some of my cards on the ground under the table when they got to be too many for me to hold. We always played at a low table and I would sit on the ground.
Now I hold the cards for Jiji as we play as one person. Some nights he would get frustrated that he doesn’t understand what is going on, saying that this was the last time he would ever play. But the next day he would say, “Trampu yaro ka?” (Shall we play cards?). And most days he seemed happy to be at the table, occasionally having a particularly lucid moment where he would point to a card and show me where it went.
Japanese flower arrangements are famous. But I don’t think I have ever seen my grandfather do one, and I don’t know if he ever would have before. But when that was the activity at his day program he came home with a beautiful flower arrangement and we all admired it.
Ancestors and Memories
Some days, when Jiji was at his day program, we would go into his room and clean and organize. Today we dusted off his buddhist shrine to his ancestors.
I found a carefully folded piece of paper with the dates on which his ancestors passed was recorded, it looked like going back maybe three generations. My mom said on the anniversaries of those days he would light incense and candles and put fresh flowers on the shrine to honor them. I remember some days when I was young helping him with this. There were also little wooden placards for each of the ancestors buried in his family burial plot, with a few still blank. I know that one day one of these blank wooden placards will have his name on it when he goes to rest in his family plot.
My grandfather was a great Go player and I also found in his room many of his trophies won from Go tournaments. Until recently he would go to the local library where he would volunteer and teach the next generation of Go players.
He also kept a daily diary for many many years and my mom found two boxes full of these precious writings! I can’t read or write Japanese now but seeing all those diaries gave me motivation to one day be able to. Although my mom says they mostly are probably just documenting what he ate for each meal, I can feel the love and care in them, all carefully kept and written in his careful writing. He was also quite good at calligraphy, and I have memories of doing that with him too as a child.
The women of the household
Being there was special, not just to spend time with my grandfather but also to spend time with my mom, aunt, and grandma. I could feel the strength of their bond and the steadiness of their presence. And I remembered deep in my soul that Japan is deep in me.
Hiroko is almost like a sister to me. We laugh and play together. I drag her to the local public pool to swim with me and makes fun of how I say things funny in Japanese.
Baba always showers me with lots of delicious and nutritious food. And of course, the occasional no so nutritious, but still delicious treats
This time with family was truly precious in ways that feel hard to capture in words. But maybe some of what I cannot say is captures in these photos filled with love
I left with a heart expanded and full of gratitude. Who knows what the circumstances of my next visit will be, but I know I will cherish these memories forever. As my mom and Hiroko wished me well they left me with one last smile from the bus window:
As I settle back into life here in Ithaca I continue to process and cherish my trip. The first few days english felt strange in my mouth, as certain phrases in particular would come to me first in japanese. Already I feel some of the language leaving me, or going into hibernation until I need it next, but I feel myself holding on it, as this time in particular, I feet like I appreciated every sound of this beautiful language just a little more. The song-like open vowel sounds, the way it brings back memories of my childhood for me, and the nurturing energy of my mom and all the women who helped to make her who she is today. I feel a renewed commitment within myself to not lose touch with my Japanese heritage. I desire to keep going back to that country, even when I may no longer have living family there. I feel like I am more aware than ever of the power of those ancestors that stand behind me and beside me and in front of me, as my life is a reflection of them.