Day Eleven – Return to Nikko, Family New Year’s Celebration, and Hot Springs (again)
We got up early the next morning to head up to Nikko again, apparently because Oto-san hated the idea that I wouldn’t get pictures of the first shogun’s shrine and tomb. Only Yuuka and I went with him. On the drive out, we did our best to discuss our philosophies of creative writing. He, too, is a writer and story-teller, but he’s always kept his writings to himself and his family because he can’t stand criticism. Yuuka grew weary of translating and told us that we needed to learn each other’s languages. Soon we made it to Nikko, and Oto-san dropped us off halfway into town so we could go take the tour ourselves. Apparently it would be too difficult for him to find parking nearby, so he would babysit the car while we wandered. I was beginning to grow tired of tourism and complained to Yuuka, who told me to stop whining. I managed to get over it and we snapped some more good pictures. We went into a special chamber that has a painted dragon on the ceiling. They call it the singing dragon because of the way sounds echo in the room. The tour guide demonstrated with a loud clap, which translated into a high-pitched hum that rolled around in the air above our heads. Unfortunately, once we went inside a lot of the temples and shrines that we visited (not just that day, but in many places), we weren’t allowed to take pictures. Without everyone taking pictures, it’s a little easier to soak up the beauty, history, and culture. And I’m sure it helps the postcard industry.
We made our way up a whole lot of stone steps through the woods to the tomb of the first shogun. They told us, at the top, how many steps there were, but I’ve since forgotten. When we’d finished wandering around the property, we made our way back through the town (stopping for a few more pictures of the beautiful old bridge), to meet Oto-san near the train station. The day was colder than most of the days since we’d been there, probably somewhere between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold weather seemed to accentuate Nikko’s beauty, with the winter sky above the surrounding mountains, some of which were rocky and snow-covered, others were clear and softened with trees. When we reached Oto-san, we climbed back into the car to drive down to Obaa-chan’s for New Year’s dinner with the extended family. The drive was nice. I napped off and on while Oto-san spoke with Yuuka. She became irritated with him once or twice, telling him to stop talking. It had nothing to do with the subject matter; she simply wanted to nap as I was but couldn’t as long as he kept bugging her. It was cute. Finally, we reached our destination.
We stepped into Obaa-chan’s household sometime around 2:30, though the rest of the family sat down to eat around 1 or so. They didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. It was my first time to meet a lot of the extended family. One of these family members was Yuuka’s cousin (or second cousin or something) Eriko, who recently married. Her husband had studied some English to travel to the US on business. He and I were able to chat some, however choppy the conversation was. The rest of the family seemed to be either hesitant to acknowledge me (or the fact that I am white and American) or were all too eager to do so. One of Yuuka’s great uncles (by marriage) was a little tipsy, so he really got a kick out of conversation with me. He cracked himself up. Yuuka reluctantly interpreted for him from time to time, other times he simply smiled at me and laughed. His son-in-law, the one who’d traveled to the US, occasionally interpreted for us. And then later I had a chance to converse with Yuuka’s young cousin (six or seven years old) in English about such topics as his name, his age, and his grade level. He spoke well.
Nearly everyone watched closely (while trying to be inconspicuous) when I picked up my chopsticks. They seemed nearly disappointed, as had everyone else I met in the course of my stay, when they were forced to compliment me, “You use chopsticks very well.” What good is a meal with a white boy if you can’t laugh at his efforts to use chopsticks? The best part of the meal was the sashimi. It was outstanding. We ate a variety of traditional New Year’s food, but I don’t really know what most of it was. It tasted okay. We had some more of the dessert that we’d eaten at Okaa-san’s friend’s home. We sat around and talked for a while, and then drank tea and said good-bye to part of the family. It wasn’t much longer before it was time for dinner. They ordered in—trays of sushi. I happened to catch a glimpse of the bill. It was the equivalent of more than $200. My goodness! My family has potlucks for twice as many people and probably spend half that. The sushi was, of course, fantastic. I enjoyed all of my chances for respite from conversation as they conversed in Japanese. Less talking requires less work.
When we were finally done with dinner and conversation, we all pitched in to clear the tables and get the dishes into the kitchen. We returned the walls to their original places, dividing the room in which we’d eat into two rooms. We experienced sufficient confusion in the process as we tried to make sure each sliding wall panel ended up in the proper spot. Once we’d put the house back together, we began to say our good-byes to the extended family. Satoki drove an aunt and uncle home, but the rest of us headed over to the hot springs to see if they were still open. I said “doozo yoorishku” (it was nice meeting you) and “sayonara” to Obaa-chan and Yuuka’s uncle. I told them I look forward to seeing them again.
We arrived at the hot springs a little less than an hour before closing, so we would be able to get a nice little bath before going home. The prospect of the public bath was slightly less intimidating because it was my second time, but slightly more intimidating because I was now with my future father-in-law. So the net change was negligible, I guess. Hey, if I’ve done nude modeling, I can do this. I’d complained to Yuuka that if her father and I went to the hot springs together, it would be awkward because I could imagine him trying to talk to me and struggling to find the words. It turned out to be rather nice having a friendly native guide—I was able to take better advantage of the amenities this time around. The only pool I checked out the first time was the hottest, and I mistakenly believed that the water in the spa and jet tub would be just as hot. This time, we started in the spa, and I was the one who tried to force conversation, not him. It wasn’t too bad, though. The spa wasn’t quite as hot as the main tub, and there was also a cold-water bath to cool off quickly between dips. After some time in the main tub, we checked out the outside bath. The temperature under the waning moon was something like 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and we climbed quickly into the tub that kept us nice and warm. Steam rose from the pool under the night sky, and we sat together in comfortable silence. Would’ve made a good picture, he said, with the moonlight and the steam. I agreed. We relaxed for a few minutes and then got ready to finish the night off with a visit to the sauna. As they always do, the sauna astounded me with its heat. I don’t think we managed to last five minutes before I was overwhelmed by the heat. I found it interesting to walk into the sauna with damp skin, because my skin remained moist the entire time, but gradually shifted from pool water to sweat. After the sauna, I had to rinse off with a nice cool shower. We were dressed by nine o’clock—closing time—and we waited in the lobby for another ten minutes or so for the women to walk out. Of course, he said, they always take much longer than he does. We snapped some pictures with the New Year’s decorations and the ice sculpture out front before heading back home.
Back at the house, Yuuka and I found our first engagement gift, a lovely bouquet of flowers from Okaa-san’s best friend and her husband. For the end of the night, Oto-san and I enjoyed VG together for the last time while we all watched the final slideshow together. Then they all surprised me with gifts to take home: books and candy. I was overwhelmed by the kindness. Before going to bed I packed up all of my things to be ready to go to the airport the next day.
Day Twelve – The Flight Home
At breakfast the next morning, Oto-san did as he usually does for occasions of some sort of importance: he read me something he’d written about my visit. He recapped the trip’s events, including the surprise questions for him, his wife, and his daughter. He praised me for my full, cheerful, and enthusiastic participation in everything they offered, such as wearing the Santa suit and visiting the hot springs. It was a touching speech. Even before his speech, I’d considered trying to think of something nice to read or say to the family about my stay, but I hadn’t prepared anything in advance, so I had to wing it. I told them how I’d been afraid to make the trip because I expected them to judge me for everything I did wrong. I told them that from the moment I arrived, I felt welcomed and appreciated. I thanked them all for making it a wonderful and entertaining visit. We enjoyed breakfast and then got together out front for some final pictures together. Satoki remained at home while the rest of us made our way to the airport.
Once at the airport, Yuuka, Hiroka, and Okaa-san waited while I checked in and Oto-san parked the car. I had to pay extra because my bag was overweight, just like I had on the trip out. I’d hoped that unloading my Christmas gifts would help, but no luck. Yuuka and Hiroka told me that they never have to pay for overweight bags, and not because their bags aren’t overweight. Sucks to be a guy, I guess. We had enough time to go sit in an airport café and eat some ice cream together before I would need to make my way through security. We didn’t talk a whole lot at the final meal together; I think we’d used up all our words and were only prolonging the inevitable good-byes. When we finished the ice cream they accompanied me to the security area. But we ran across some more New Year’s decorations and couldn’t resist getting a few more pictures together.
Then we approached the security area. I hadn’t expected to feel so emotional. In the course of this short visit with each other, I’d become rather attached to these people. I explained to Oto-san that I really do share his corny sense of humor, and I wasn’t just laughing to be nice. I told Hiroka that I liked the way she talked (there’s some musical or rhythmic quality to her voice and enunciation that I really enjoy), but then I told her that it might just be because I don’t know what she’s saying. Finally, I thanked Okaa-san for working from morning to night, always with a bright smile, to make sure that I wanted for nothing and enjoyed my stay. She told Yuuka there was no need to translate, that she understood what I’d said. I hugged everyone and then gave Yuuka a big kiss. I thanked her for everything and told her that I love her. Then I went through security while they stood and watched. Once on the other side, I waved. They waved back. I walked over to the left to find the stairs down to the gates, and they chased me to the glass partitions that separated us, where they waved frantically, with wide smiles, to say good-bye. I continued down the stairs and left my new family behind.
The flight was disorienting. After so much time with quite, gentle people, I was back with Americans. A young Japanese girl sat next to me on the plane, and she was nice and friendly, but the folks right in front of me weren’t so enjoyable. They had a young child, probably three years old, and he made noise throughout the entire flight. They were grossly obese and did whatever they could to avoid giving the kid the attention he wanted, while doing nothing to make him be quiet. The flight left Tokyo at 5pm and landed in LA at 9am the same day. On the FlyAway bus from the airport to Van Nuys, the bus driver took his job way too seriously and made most of the passengers uncomfortable by overloading the bus and driving too fast. The young man sitting directly behind me spoke loudly about his political views which were marked by arrogance and vast assumptions and generalizations about what people know and want. (sounds familiar, right?) I was too exhausted to take the city bus, so I caught a cab back home. It cost $36, but I didn’t care. I crashed, eager to learn about the real meaning of jet-lag.