Joe in Japan hits the press

Joe in Japan hits the press

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The first of Joe Udell’s articles on his three-week trip to Japan is on newsstands now! As a special treat for our online readers, here is the first of Joe’s five-part Japan series, which will run through our special New Year’s edition. Come back often, there’s plenty more to come . . .

KONICHIWA, JAPAN
The Journey Begins

“Once she goes, there will be no one left in Japan,” said the calm voice on the other end of the phone.

I just listened and nodded my head silently as my grandfather talked about his cousin and our family’s last known relative in Japan, 83-year-old Toyoko Norisue. Once a friendly contact, Toyoko had gradually fallen out of touch with my grandfather. In fact, none of my immediate relatives had spoken to her in years, much less visited her in Hiroshima. The situation struck a gloomy chord with me.

Instead of letting the hands of time separate our two families forever, I decided to act. The unfortunate lapse in communication formed the basis of an epic proposal that I presented to my editor, Karleen Chinen, in April. My ultimate goal was to visit Toyoko in person, find out the names and whereabouts of any other living relatives in the country and visit the family graveyard, before it was too late.

But first, I would go on my own mission of self-discovery, beginning in Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis, then weaving through landmark sites, urban hotspots and hidden outposts before finally arriving in Hiroshima. Hopefully, by the time I reached Toyoko, I would have some understanding of the culture and the country that my ancestors came from.

Indeed, the idea was ambitious. I would be experiencing the country – and its vast 143,619 square miles – for the first time as a wide-eyed, English-only-speaking, fourth generation Japanese American. On top of that, Toyoko, a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor, was said to be slowing with age and growing increasingly isolated. There were no guarantees that she would welcome my visit or even be able to communicate with me.

But every time I felt the sting of hesitation, I visualized Toyoko’s children and grandchildren who have made lives for themselves in Japan. They are family, I thought to myself, with the same blood flowing through their veins. If I didn’t make this trip, our respective kin would be destined to roam the globe unbeknownst to each other for generations to come. That chilling image alone gave me a sense of urgency.

And then there were my own burning questions about my ancestral homeland. What is it about Japan that instills such a deep sense of pride in its citizens? Who are these people who share the same ethnicity as me, and yet, remain insulated by a language barrier? How will I view the country – and how will I be perceived by its residents – as someone half Japanese by blood, but American by nationality?

In many ways, my proposed sojourn to Japan was the next phase of my evolving Japanese American identity. I am the product of several generations of assimilation into American culture and, while my ancestors’ blue-collar sacrifices turned upward mobility into a reality for my family, like many yonsei and gosei, Japanese traditions were not a part of my upbringing. How do you make ozoni? . . . can you repeat that last bon dance move? . . . what in the world is a shichi-go-san? . . . the answers to these questions may be common knowledge to most Japanese Americans, but until recently, they have escaped me.

It is only through my experiences at the Hawaii Herald that I have begun to truly comprehend – and embrace – the uniqueness of my Japanese heritage. Over the last year and a half, my work has unlocked a once-dormant cultural identity through my coverage of Japanese ceremonies, celebrations and various current events. A trip to Japan, I felt, would be my chance to exercise some poetic justice and, hopefully, connect with a relative in the process.

To my surprise, there weren’t any qualms about my unlikely three-week working vacation from the company brass. I expected some hesitation or, at the very least, a mandate to take an unpaid leave of absence. Instead, my family crusade was met with nothing but support from our humble Japanese American publication.

“A lot of yonsei and gosei could relate to your situation,” Karleen said. “Most of them don’t practice any cultural traditions and many have never been to Japan to meet their relatives. I think it would be a great experience for you and a fantastic story.”

***

I am standing at the Japan Airlines baggage check-in counter and this is not how I imagined my trip unfolding.

Five months ago, I had visions of backpacking across the country, zipping from one historic city to the next with nothing more than the clothes on my back. But over the last few weeks, numerous contacts in Japan have offered their help either as guides, translators or hosts and my bag has quickly filled up with omiyage.

With my vagabond fantasy long gone, I have resigned myself to “suitcasing” it across Japan with a messenger bag and an overstuffed dufflebag on wheels, most of which contains gift-wrapped Kona coffee and 2009 calendars of Hawaiian flowers. Just looking at the 70-pound body bag is giving me a migraine. But as the Japanese say, shogunai, or it can’t be helped.

If there is one saving grace to my luggage dilemma, it is JAL’s baggage policy. In fact, it’s almost too good to be true: Passengers are allowed to check in two bags up to 70-pounds each – this, in an era where most airlines are cutting costs left and right and passing the burden onto the customer. Suddenly, I don’t feel so overwhelmed.

Onboard the massive 747 aircraft, things keep getting better as we climb into the stratosphere. Bilingual stewardess dressed in dark blazers and colorful scarves are everywhere, bearing hand towels, hot tea and kakimochi-peanut snacks. Even the toddler sitting next to me is pleased with his complimentary airplane toy. After two movies, two satisfying meals and the option for free alcohol, I am thoroughly convinced that the flight is the antithesis of every modern, penny-pinching airplane ride. The Japanese know how to fly in style.

Seven painless hours later, I am more than prepared for the universally-dreaded customs stop. Surprisingly, even that is a breeze – the photograph-and-fingerprints session goes off without a hitch and my oversized dufflebag arrives in one piece, even if one of its arm straps was torn off in the handling process. After dead lifting it off the conveyor belt, I drag it through the final check point and board a bus headed for Shinjuku Station.

The ride into Tokyo is a slow acclimation to the urban empire that I will call my home for the next five days. Country pastures and tiny homes dot the landscape before me like a Seurat painting while the bus breezes through one toll-booth after another. A half hour later, the rural sights gradually give way to looming department stores and clustered office buildings as the busy highway, once a free-flowing traffic artery, has become clogged with a parade of automobiles inching home in the dusk of rush hour.

Our slow crawl towards Shinjuku Station ends abruptly. The driver pulls out of the cattleherd of taxis, buses and cars and dives into the lone parking spot on the crowded curbside. The doors open and the sounds of Tokyo rush through the aisle – engines growling, people scattering about, even the blinding billboard lights seem to carry a tangible noise.

I grab my luggage and weave my way along the sidewalk, seemingly burning with the footsteps of hurried pedestrians and bag-toting shoppers. My instructions are to take a taxi to a business hotel a few minutes away, where I will meet my friend and host for this Tokyo adventure, Kosaku Yada.

***

I find a white Toyota taxi parked along the sidewalk roughly 50 yards away. Eager to settle into the city, I sidestep past a group of shoppers and grab the driver’s attention with my outstretched arm.

“JAL City Yotsuya,” I say, reading the hotel’s name from a crumpled piece of notebook paper.

The middle-aged driver, dressed immaculately in a dark suit and tie, stares at me blankly. “JAL . . . City Yotsuya?” he asks, clearly puzzled.

I hand him the paper, which also contains the hotel’s address and telephone number. “You call,” I say, suddenly wishing I had studied Japanese before departing. The driver dials the number on his cell phone, speaks a few indecipherable phrases and then hangs up. The automatic doors of the vehicle swing open. He shakes his head and says shortly, “Sorry, I don’t know hotel.”

Confused, I grab my bags and rush past an incoming herd of pedestrians. I can feel the powerful glare of a thousand headlights on me as I look anxiously for another cab. Finally, I spot a black-model taxi a few yards away.

“JAL City Yotsuya,” I repeat, this time holding onto my bags.

Again, I am greeted by a look of bewilderment. I point to the information on my notepaper once more – the driver doesn’t even look at the sheet. Knowing how the story ends, I begin to search – frantically now – for the next cab. I am officially worried.

Meanwhile, darkness has descended on the city and I have no cell phone, no idea how to get to the hotel and no knowledge of the native language. It is the culture shock that I was prepared for, but never expected to arrive so early.

In America, cab drivers seem to know the location of every motel in town, every bar in a 20 mile radius, every dead end neighborhood street – and if they don’t, they find out immediately. Here I am in Japan, a country which is renowned for its service, and I have been turned away by two cabs in five minutes. While I ponder the cultural disparity, I spot another taxi approach and pray that the driver understands English.

“JAL City Yotsuya.”

“Hi,” he says.

“You know?” I ask, fingers crossed.

“I think.”

Those two hesitant words have never sounded so glorious to my ears. Before the driver can change his mind, I hurl myself into the back seat, cumbersome bags and all. Off to JAL City Yotsuya or further into the Tokyo abyss, I think to myself.

With one push on the gas pedal, we are flying past crowded street corners, businessmen on bicycles and cryptic neon signs. The city is unfolding before my eyes and it seems much bigger than I ever imagined. It is mysterious, captivating and suffocating all at once – and it appears to be breathing.

Out of the corner of my dizzy left eye I spot the hotel’s blue lights staring at me. The car comes to a sudden halt and for the first time I can feel the unfiltered energy of the city pulsate through my body. I don’t fight the electric sensation. I stop for a moment, look around and move towards the hotel.

The journey has begun.

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