Reports From The Road, Travel

Report From Japan #5

October 31, 2010
Kyoto, Japan

In Wakayama, an industrial city south of Osaka, I waited at the train station for my Servas host, Taeko, to pick me up. When a radiant, tall woman in her mid-sixties, dressed in jeans and a sweater, ran up to me with a big, open smile I knew I’d enjoy spending time with her.

Since Taeko’s English was excellent I had a chance to ask many questions over my four day stay with her. She was open and happy to answer everything, even the tough questions about her country I wouldn’t normally ask.

I asked how her ninety-four year old father felt about Americans. “I went to Pearl Harbor with my father,” said Taeko. “He had been a sailor on a big ship and lost many friends during the war. I was curious how he would react. When we got to the monument my father stood tall and saluted. I asked him why he did that. He said, ‘There are no enemies, or friends here. Just dead soldiers to be honored.’ It touched me deeply that he said that.” Taeko wiped the tears from her eyes and continued. “My father loves everything American; the movies, music, books. He respects Americans. My interest in learning English came from him.”

Taeko had been an English tutor for thirty years. “If the Japanese people learn English in school why are they so hesitant to speak it?” I asked.

“The system is set up for them to pass grammar tests, that’s it. The Japanese only learn what they have to learn to get good grades,” said Taeko. “They can read complex texts in English, but don’t want to embarrass themselves by making a mistake if they try and speak it. The government sees this is a problem. In April when the new school year starts they are going to start to teach English communication in the elementary schools. This should help.”

The day I arrived at Taeko’s was her husband Hiroshi’s last day of work. He didn’t speak English, but when I congratulated him on his retirement Taeko translated his response, “I am proud I worked for fifty years.” She explained his statement.

“For the last decade many men have been laid off from their jobs. The men had so much responsibility, to their parents, their wife and children, the pressure was just too much and they felt ashamed they had no work. If you do have work you are not allowed to complain about anything. The stress of work is sometimes too much also. Many men have strokes, or they are depressed. The rate of suicide for men between the ages of thirty and fifty increased dramatically.” (There was no religious taboo about suicide in Japan and life insurance companies paid a partial amount on a policy even if the cause of death was suicide.)

“That’s sad,” I said. “I read an article recently that said many older people in Japan are committing suicide.”

“Yes, that’s true too. Seniors are living longer (the average age of a woman in Japan is now eighty-six years old). More children are putting them into nursing homes because both the husband and wife work to support the family. Times are hard in Japan right now. With most families having only one child the pressure for a couple to take care of four parents is high. The divorce rate in the last fifteen years has risen to thirty percent. The parents don’t want to be a burden, but because our health care system is so good many are being kept alive when they could have died naturally. There are articles in the paper almost every week from seniors saying ‘we have the right to die.’”

Taeko continued by saying there was also a high rate of suicide in the last ten years with young people because school was so hard. “Many families pay over a third of their income to send their children to school so the student is expected to get good grades. It was not uncommon for a young person to get on the Internet and find other young people to commit suicide with. These three or four strangers would meet in a car, take a sleeping pill and die from the exhaust. They needed the peer pressure to be sure they would go through with it. The government decided the young people needed more time to relax and lightened the school load. But the test results were much lower than the other Asian countries, so three years ago they introduced the harder schedule again. And now there are more suicides. It’s a big problem.”


For the Japanese an invigorating walk in the woods was a chance to leave their emotional baggage behind. Hikers were expected to slow down, walk slowly and quietly on a trail, and soak up the natural beauty. The Japanese phrase, shinrin-yoku, translated to “forest bathing,” which has been defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” The term was coined in 1982 by a government agency. Recently Japanese scientists have started quantifying the impact forest bathing can have on humans; it lowers stress, lowers cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate.

On Halloween, Taeko took me forest bathing to the Valley of the Graves. In the past monks used the trail for training and the shrine at the end of the trail was used as an inn. The shrine was now visited mostly by mothers praying for their children’s success for an entrance exam, success at university, or at a job interview. Along the path there were sticks stuck in the ground with tiny paper flags stuck to them. The flags were filled with the many prayers of the mothers and included the name of the child, their birthdate, and the university, or job, their child wanted.

Every walk I took in Japan seemed to have a shrine at the end of it. “Yes, we Japanese must have a purpose to do anything,” said Taeko. Another outing took us to a Doll Shrine (Awashima Jinja). I didn’t know what to expect. In the small fishing village of Kada there were hundreds of beautiful porcelain dolls in fancy kimonos and wedding dresses lined up on the front porch of the shrine.

“These dolls are worth a lot of money. The owners didn’t want to throw them out. They believe they have a soul. So they brought them here,” said Taeko. The grounds of the shrine were filled with sections of Buddha statues, an area under a tree had Hello Kitty statues beckoning me closer to them. There was a wall covered in masks. Every animal had its own section; raccoons, frogs, horses, roosters, rats, in every shape and size imaginable.

We walked up to a wall with plastic bags hanging from it. “The bags have underwear in them,” said Taeko. “In the past women put used underwear in them, but now they go to the store and buy a new pair to offer in prayer.” She held up a small wooden plaque with writing on it. “These wood plaques have the prayers written on them: please send us our second child, please help me heal my tumor, please help my daughter with her pregnancy.”

Once a year, on March 3rd, the donated dolls at the Shrine were loaded into specially constructed boats and sent out to sea (So many dolls were donated each year something had to be done with them. For environmental reasons they no longer dump the dolls in the ocean. Taeko thinks they might burn them.) The idea was that the dolls would take with them the sicknesses, or problems, that would otherwise have afflicted the children of the donor.

I spent my last night in Japan at a Super Sento, a public bath. We paid the equivalent of $10 that included a simple meal in the small restaurant and our entrance fee. Inside I disrobed, sat on a low stool and joined the other women scrubbing themselves with soap. Next you poured buckets of water over yourself to rinse. Once throughly cleaned you wrapped a small towel around you and entered the bathing area; hot tubs with jets, a hot tub you recline in so the jets give you a food massage, a cold plunge, outdoor individual wooden tubs, steam rooms scented with Chinese healing herbs (moxa), and my favorite, a platform of one inch deep hot water flowing over tiles that you lie down on. The spa was opened that evening only for women and they seemed relaxed and happy. The perfect way to end my stay.

I enjoyed visiting Japan, but I wouldn’t want to live there. There’s a Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks up will get hammered down.” I’m a nail that sticks up and I wouldn’t want to get hammered down. I never was good at obeying rules, or following the status quo. I found Japan to be a serious country. I didn’t see much laughter. Didn’t see kids playing outside together. “They are all inside playing video games,” said Taeko.” A place where mother’s go to shrines to pray their children succeed in a school test, a job interview, a marriage. A place where children were pushed so hard to succeed they committed group suicides. Where wives who longed to travel never dared to ask their husbands if they could because their husband might get upset. “So they fail before they even begin,” said Taeko, who was well traveled, with and without her husband. A place where people played out their given roles perfectly. Or tried to. A schizophrenic country where one face was worn on the outside, another on the inside, and it wasn’t alright to talk about the real issues (except with Taeko).

I found in Japan a place where even a walk in the woods was described as “forest therapy.” A place where learning a language for twelve years in school was not enough to speak it without fear of embarrassment. A place where childhood was not meant to be fun and nothing mattered to the parents except their child was the best and must win at all costs. A country with only ancient traditional music and dance and no music or art was taught in the schools. “The young people go to a karaoke bar for fun, but don’t go out dancing or to concerts,” Taeko told me. Japan, a land of earthquakes and isolation, where friends didn’t invite each other over for meals and sometimes have never seen each other’s homes. A land of rules, rituals and roles, where it was so easy to do something, or say something, wrong. Where the most important word I learned was “sumimasen,” which could mean: I’m sorry, excuse me, if you please, I appreciate it too much, please help me, I’m next, attention, just a moment, wait a minute, may I sit here, sorry…I must sit here, you are doing too much for me…and so on. That one word summed up Japan for me.

That said, I loved the peace and beauty of the monasteries and temples, the generosity of the people, the perfection of the food, the excitement of sumo wrestling, the quiet of the countryside where permissions dried strung on lines. I loved the ringing of the bells and the clapping of the hands three times to get the attention of the kami spirits who lived at the Shinto shrines, the simplicity of the gardens, the abundance of choices at the markets, the long history and fascinating culture, the feeling of safety wherever I went, the efficiency of the mass transportation system, the complexity of the language, the peace in the mountains and ancient cemeteries, the tradition of the rituals and chanting. I’d wanted to find the quieter side of Japan and I succeeded. I couldn’t wait to go back.

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