On a bullet train ride from Shinagawa (Tokyo) to Hakata, I sat next to an older Japanese woman who had been sniffling during most of the trip. She had a mask around her mouth, and would politely bow whenever she had to cough or make a louder sniffle. After an hour or so of this, I gave her a handful of Japanese lemon candy with Vitamin C. She bowed and thanked me, and we continued our trip in relative silence to concentrate on scenery and our books.
Before she exited the train at Fukuyama, the older woman rustled through her overnight bag before handing me a delicately wrapped gift that bore a Hakone resort ribbon, no doubt a souvenir from her most recent trip. She pulled down her mask and told me how kind I was to give her candy before issuing one final apology for being an ill train paassenger. Before I could give the gift back to her, she broke into a beautiful, deep smile then rushed towards the train doors.
Japanese women seem to pass through my life by making thunderous impacts through simple, genial gestures. I was on this train headed to Hakata because my in-laws decided that I needed to relax and heal from the hellish ordeal of returning my uncle’s remains back to Japan after he died while visiting me in the US. I had not intended to enjoy this trip, but being in the company of Japanese women, all strangers on my train rides, was making this impossible.
I seemed to ride every bullet train in Japan, staring at the scenery from Tokyo to Kyushu, then northward to Hokkaido. Along the way, I began to appreciate that the most beautiful part of Japan was its older women. They were young girls during and after World War II, growing into womanhood sometime in the 50s, 60s and 70s. They watched their country go from a war torn battle zone to immense economic prosperity, or fell in love and moved away to dig their feet into American soil. I only caught glimpses of their lives through my friends’ mothers, or on my occasional trips to Japan when I was younger, when my mind was concentrated upon going to Tokyo discos, listening to records and buying fashion.
There were times when these same women, who were family members or distant relatives, would invite me places. One woman whom I will refer to as Ms. E, a distant relative and childhood friend of my mother, invited me to a side trip along the Izu Peninsula when I was 20-something. To get me to go, Ms. E also managed to arrange a side trip with one of my uncles so that I could see Mt. Fuji. On a foggy Tokyo morning, we sat comfortably in my uncle’s car as he drove us to the foot of Mt. Fuji, where we dined at an old Japanese restaurant that required that we remove our shoes and read from menus that seemed like calligraphy museum pieces. My aunt seemed to disappear during our meal, until finally reappearing with a bag of souvenirs and snacks for my trip to Izu. She continued to ply with more gifts and snacks until Ms. E and I boarded our train.
As we passed old temples and historical sites, Ms. E began to explain the evolution of Japanese roof architecture during different historical periods. Ms. E seemed to be an encyclopedia of knowledge as she acted as my own personal tour guide, explaining the history of each area as we inched our way towards Izu. She rattled off the names of samurai clans and battles which took place nearby to influence local culture. As we continued our travels, she brought me to temples and taught me how to look at Japanese art. In the evening, she brought me to an old, seaside restaurant constructed from old, deep brown wood that smelled of the ocean. We ate shabu shabu from cast iron pots that were suspended from the ceiling, and I felt so far away from the noisy, too modern Tokyo.
Through our conversations, I discovered that Ms. E was the wife of a world famous sculptor. Through her husband’s commissions, Ms. E became a world traveler who was fluent in several languages. She eventually expanded our conversations to include lively descriptions of her visits throughout Europe before she began to ask me hundreds of questions about my life. We concluded our trip back to Yokohama by conversing in German on the train. That would be the last time I would see her.
I had forgotten about Ms. E until I sat on a train going from Aomori to Hakodate. The trip would travel through an underground tube between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, and my in-laws and I sat in the first class section where the seats looked and felt like expensive office chairs. Sitting in front of me was an older couple who had boarded the train right before it departed the station. The older woman was struggling to hang up her companion’s coat, so I helped her with this task and then secured her luggage so that it would not slide about our cabin’s sleek, wooden floor. Once I sat back down in my chair, the older woman approached me with an armful of Japanese apple pie snacks and gave them to me as a thank you gift. I tried to explain that such a gesture was unnecessary, but she was so sincere and would not stop bowing. I finally took the pies, gave them to my in-laws and then gave the older woman a bag of rice crackers fresh from Yokohama.
This same sort of thing would play out again a few days later, this time on a trip from Tokyo to Niigata. The lady who sat next to me had a hard time settling into her seat, so I gave her a hand with her items. Once she was able to relax, she opened her bag and gave me a handful of tiny chocolates in beautiful silk-like black wrapping. She was returning to her hometown after visiting a daughter who had moved away to Tokyo. We spoke for the duration of the trip, and she told me stories of her daughter, the town in which she lived and how she enjoyed riding trains, watching television and singing karaoke.
Somewhere in my doldrums, these women began to lift my spirits. I wonder if they understood that there was such loveliness and humility in offering gifts to strangers on trains. Since that one trip, I have accumulated so many indelible experiences with older Japanese women whose upturned smiles transformed them into charming youths with so many interesting stories to tell me about life. They wanted to share their snacks, force me to accept their gifts and gave me so much attention, never understanding that their own gestures were so foreign to most people on earth.
None of this should have been a surprise. Passing through my life was a wonderful eccentric by the name of Kazuko, who fashioned crystals and gems with wire into works of beautiful, wearable art. I was introduced to her through a friend, and Kazuko took me under her wings by introducing me to her many famous friends. Kazuko also procured several high fashion clients for my sputtering web business.
My work with Kazuko was simple. She wanted me to help her get older friends started on the internet so that they would not get lost in what she deemed as “online traffic”. Everyday, she had more people she wanted to help, and Kazuko paid money to open dot-com names for famous friends and new designers. In one month, I opened over one hundred new dot-coms for her friends, and I never knew if they thanked her or understood the generosity of such a gift. Kazuko gave so freely to everyone, despite spending long periods of time suffering from a variety of illnesses. For my work, Kazuko kept showering me with gifts of jewelry that were always enclosed in beautiful beaded and silk bags tied with golden strings, all of her own creation.
I never met Kazuko in person. Ours was a East/West Coast relationship that was created through hours of phone calls where I was overwhelmed by so many tales of her life, work, art and friends. She thought that kindness was important, a lesson she had learned back in Japan. This was, of course, a lesson that every woman of her generation seemed to learn so well.
Then I think of the internet and the current Japanese woman mania, with the interest in everything manga, hentai, cosplay and bukkaku. There is such a fascination for the Japanese woman who could flash peace signs and look alluring for photos while wearing a baby doll outfit, only to turn around and appear innocent and graceful in a silk kimono. A quick look at reddit or a Yahoo questions inquiry will turn up a million reasons why people want a Japanese girl: the hair, the skin, the face, the eyes, the trust in physical appearance and the fascination for what lays atop the floating world and beneath the silken layers of a kimono.
There is also the other stereotype filled with nasty comments and illusions that begin with Yoko Ono and end somewhere between a war bride’s deception and a dragon lady’s tongue. These are the darker images created by cynicism and stereotype, as if a single individual could be capable of toppling a rock band or an entire universe.
So what is the truth? It varies with each individual’s true experience.
For me, it is my friend Madoka, a woman I met while playing Everquest. She sent me packages of Japanese snacks because she knew I missed them. Madoka had a warm, beautiful spirit, and she eventually fell in love with a Frenchman who spent all his money to pursue her, flying from France to Japan. I spoke to him on the phone almost daily and listened as he lost his heart to her. They now live in the South of France, where she has absorbed the country’s magnificent culture while retaining her own, fusing it with her natural kindness and adventurous spirit.
It will also be the elegant, graceful Japanese woman who is in her 60s and 70s, riding trains and staring out windows. It will be the mothers of my girlfriends, the women who stood near kitchen windows and cooked food, trying to understand this new and confusing world. They taught me to love baseball and watched as Bertha and I put on silly plays. The let me sleep over their homes and listen to music at a loud volume. They are my aunts, who came to visit me in the US so that I would understand that I was loved, and always told me to come back home to Japan (even though I am an American). They are the last practitioners of the lost art of gentility in a disappearing world that is becoming overwhelmed by its lack of consideration and manners to others.
You are welcome to take a train and fall in love with these women as I have.
I will be in Japan for a bit. Happy early Mother’s day to everyone
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