Japan Visit: Days Nine and Ten

Day Nine—Tokyo and Asking the Tough Questions

I woke up early the next day, a full twenty minutes before Okaa-san had planned to wake me up. I tried to roll over and fall back asleep, but anticipating my rapidly approaching request, I was unable to do it. I retrieved the piece of paper containing my translated statement and request, and I headed downstairs. Okaa-san and Oto-san were both awake already. “Ohayo,” we said—good morning. I couldn’t think of anything to say or do in the meantime, so I just sat down and unfolded the paper, ready to dive right in. After I got a few sentences in, Oto-san motioned to Okaa-san to stop with her chores and come sit down. He could sense the gravity of the situation. She sat, and I continued on. I opened by thanking them for their gracious hospitality and mentioned that I could think of no better place to visit on my first trip abroad than Japan. Then I said that I wanted to ask them an important question. “What question?” Okaa-san interrupted in English. I continued to read, still in Japanese, never knowing precisely what I was saying at any given moment. But the way the script went, I explained that getting involved with Yuuka had been an unexpected, but rather pleasant, surprise. Her energy, drive, and sense of humor were wonderful and brightened my days. She challenges me at every turn to be the best person I can be, even when that meant encouraging me to take a job more than a thousand miles away. Her smile and laugh warm my heart even across all that distance. I love her, and I want to spend my life with her. If we have children together, I will do everything I can to raise them to honor their background and heritage, and with a sense of respect and compassion for life in all forms. I will do everything I can to comfort Yuuka and let her know that she is loved. If you will accept me, I will embrace your family as my own, with love and respect. Can I ask your daughter to marry me?

I couldn’t recall exactly how I’d phrased the question, and I hadn’t considered the possibility that maybe they would want to discuss things before giving me an answer. Nevertheless, if I would’ve had serious concerns about whether or not they would be receptive to this, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it. I would’ve waited until I left Japan and then engaged Yuuka in a discussion about our future together. But I didn’t have to do that. Her parents seemed to like me, so I asked them. When I finished reading, I looked up from the sheet nervously. Her mom blinked and her dad sat silent for a moment. The moment was brief. Then he said, “Yes.” The conversation after that remains a bit of a blur. I thanked them, and Okaa-san complimented my reading. I explained that my sister-in-law had translated for me, and they both said, “ahh.” I did my best to explain that I planned to go up in Tokyo Tower to pop the question, and that I would video-record the proposal. They liked the idea, especially her dad. I showed them the engagement ring and they seemed to like it. I still don’t know for sure whether or not the Japanese typically give engagement rings. I got in the shower to get ready to go to Tokyo. When I finished with the shower, Satoki had woken up and come downstairs. I asked if he knew about my plans and he said yes. Oto-san asked if he could photocopy my request. His positive energy about this was reassuring. I ate some breakfast and Yuuka eventually came downstairs, not long before it was time to go. We had to rush out to catch the train.

The train ride was just like the other days. We rode in silence, drinking our hot canned coffee from the vending machine as we rolled southward to Tokyo. Eventually we reached our stop and emerged from the underground train station into one of the older portions of the city, the part that was once Edo, if I recall correctly. We visited a couple old shrines and temples but spent more time wandering along the street-side marketplace with all sorts of touristy knick-knack shops, suppliers of GU10 led bulbs and food stands. I found a nice, traditional Japanese-style housecoat for Mom, but that was about it. I was very tempted to buy myself a samurai sword, but Yuuka gave that idea the ax. When we finished there, we hopped another train to head across town to Tokyo Tower.

We walked to the tower from the train station, and it was a nice walk. We walked past a few neat buildings and shops. Knowing what a big city Tokyo is from aerial pictures and skyline shots, I was surprised that I didn’t see more skyscrapers. In downtown Chicago and New York, it feels like you have to look straight up if you want to see the sky because the tall buildings are everywhere. I haven’t really spent any time to speak of in downtown LA, but the tall buildings there are understandably fewer, with the earthquakes. There are earthquakes in Japan too, but I still felt like I’d seen a lot more skyscrapers in pictures than I was seeing wandering through the town. I was also surprised to find that Tokyo Tower is more like the Eiffel Tower than the Sears Tower. It’s Tokyo; I expected ultra-modern, sleek businesslike skyscraper. Instead I had to settle for a French-looking thing. This meant that the observation deck wasn’t nearly as high as I’d hoped. Oh well, it would have to do. We walked past another old shrine, and then a nice little garden with a path through the trees, right at the base of the tower. I took a couple pictures of Yuuka standing at the edge of the garden. The sunlight passed through the tops of the trees beautifully above and behind her.

And, of course, I hadn’t anticipated the place would be crawling with tourists. The lobby was packed with people. We waited in line patiently and eventually managed to cram ourselves into an elevator with too many other people. The observation deck was vaguely reminiscent of the one in the Sears Tower, with the exception that it was more circular (as opposed to rectangular). If I was pressured to guess, I would say that there were probably windows facing in twelve directions. I forgot to bring the nice set of binoculars that a friend lent me. I was amazed to see how many tall buildings there were outside all of a sudden. Apparently the way the city was arranged, the tall buildings were spread out enough that they weren’t quite as visible from ground level. To look from the observation deck, however, I could see buildings crowding the landscape for miles in every direction. At the edge of the horizon, I could see mountains. In the distance, hidden in the haze, I could see Fuji-san, ever so faintly, towering over all the other mountains. I took a couple pictures, but it takes an attentive eye to notice him. People crowded around most of the windows and I couldn’t find any decent places to set up the camera to take video. I didn’t want to ask someone to take our picture because I wouldn’t have been able to explain to them that I intended to make a movie, not just a still photo. I began to reconsider my plans to ask her at the top of Tokyo Tower.

In the brochure, I saw that they had a café in the lower half of the observation deck. The look of the café from the picture conjured an image of a restaurant with waiters where we could get a table next to a window. Unfortunately, café meant that we would have to order at the counter and sit at little tables that were too close to each other. The café was set in an inner section of the observation deck on a raised level. We could see out the windows, but there were still people wandering around by the windows. The café even had a smoking section. I was getting the distinct impression that I didn’t want to propose in this place, with all of the people, noise, and the smell of stale smoke. For the hell of it, I experimented with placing my camera on a chair next to us to see if I could even prop it up to take a decent video, and it wasn’t working. This place was definitely out. I thought of the little garden at the base of the tower. That would be free of people and maybe I’d find a nice spot to set the camera.

We were barely twenty yards into the garden when I saw some sort of stone shrine (not shrine like an official Shinto place of worship, but more like a lowercase sort of shrine). There was a good spot, albeit low, to set up the camera. I put it in position and turned on the video. We had to squat down to make sure we were in the picture, which meant that I was already almost on my knee. The ground wasn’t suitable for me to really take a knee, so I settled for the fact that I was close to the ground. Sure, she was too, but that’s okay.

I told her that I hadn’t set the camera to take a time-delay picture, like I’d planned. She laughed, and then I said that it was taking a video. I think she started to piece it together by this point. Most of what I meant to say, the words, ideas and phrases that I’d written out and then rewrote that morning, went out of my head. I started off the way I meant to start off, by telling her that I’d considered cancelling our first date because I was afraid she was out of my league, and that when I got to know her I found out for sure that she really was out of my league. I told her I’d gotten scared on the plane and felt like cancelling the trip. I told her that she’s beautiful and that being with her has been wonderful. The other things that I wanted to say—that thinking of her, looking at her picture, or hearing her voice on the phone brings me joy, that I love her and want to spend my life with her—had gone out of my head. I told her that I’d asked her parents for, and they granted me, permission to ask her to marry me. I took the ring out of my coat pocket and showed it to her. She looked closely at it. “It’s pretty,” she said. She looked up at me, smiling. She wanted to draw it out and make me sweat. “Yes,” she said. Yay! I kissed her. Try on the ring, I said. It fit! Not perfectly, but well enough. She likes it!

From there, we headed across town, arm in arm, to the Emperor’s garden, a set of walled-in woods surrounded by city. Once we arrived, we learned that it was, like so many other things, closed for the holidays. We took pictures of the gate, along with many of the buildings that we could see (we still couldn’t see nearly as many from the ground as we’d seen from the tower). We pondered a trip to Shinkansen or…some other place that started with S, but ultimately decided to head back home.

Once back at the house, we joined Hiroka and Satoki in preparing soba—Japanese buckwheat noodles—from scratch. This was another adventure. We took buckwheat flour (and I think another ingredient or two, but I don’t know), added water a little bit at a time, and mixed it vigorously by hand, trying hard to ensure even distribution of the water through the flour. This was, much like the mochi, more difficult than it looked. My forearms and fingers were still sore from the day before, and here I was trying to make the perfect buckwheat dough. Once we’d added all the water, we kneaded the dough to strive for consistency, and then made a ball that was supposed to be free of bubbles. We rolled the dough as flat and thin as possible, and also tried to perform some strange techniques for making the round dough square (without simply slicing off the edges). I got a little frustrated with this process, too, as I was getting flour on my clothes and my dough wasn’t making a good square. I was tired. But Hiroka helped me out and the soba turned out okay. We folded our dough up into a nice little rectangle and then sliced it extra thin. It turned out to be quite nice. Okaa-san and Oto-san worked together meanwhile to put together other parts of our dinner. Soon we were all able to sit down together and enjoy another gas station dinner. We cooked up some nice soba soup, a traditional New Year’s meal. Before our meal, Yuuka announced our good news to her family, and they cheered and congratulated us. We ate, drank, and were merry.

Day Ten—Yuuka’s Birthday, A Trip to Nikko, and the Hot Springs (again)

Being that it was Yuuka’s birthday, we let her sleep in. We all slept in a little bit, but Yuuka more than the rest of us. Her dad set up a ton of pictures, some roses, and happy birthday signs on the table, and we got ready so that when she came down the stairs we could surprise her by singing happy birthday. I set up the camera to capture the moment on video. She came down, surprised and happy, and we sang. She opened her present, a nice new coat her parents had picked up for her. She already had her birthday gift from me on her ring finger. We ate a traditional New Year’s meal of fish-related things (I’m still not quite sure what all of it was) before getting ready to take our trip to Nikko.

The historic sites at Nikko included (as usual) temples and shrines. Apparently this was the location of the first shogun’s shrine and tomb. They’d moved the shrine hundreds of miles from its former location, up into the mountains near Nantai-san. There was a beautiful old-style red and gold bridge over the mountain stream. We found a parking spot and walked up to the temple. The shogun’s tomb and shrine were closed for the night, so we wouldn’t be able to visit that. We walked past a bunch of vendors on our way up to the temple. One old woman was being pushed toward the temple in her wheelchair by a young man who seemed to probably be her nephew or grandson. It got complicated when he approached the stairs. Along with three other strapping young lads, we lifted her chair and carried her swiftly up the steps. Good karma. Then we made our way up to the front, where we put in our five yen (also karma) pieces and prayed.

After the temple, we went to a nearby shrine (not the shogun’s, but a different one). We bought fortunes and read them, and apparently mine was really good. Yuuka still hasn’t told me what it meant, but she told me that it was all really good stuff. Hiroka’s wasn’t as good, so she tied it to a string. Apparently if you tie the bad fortune to the string, you will get a better one the next time you visit. Glad I don’t have to worry about that! We saw a wedding tree—two trees that grew up very close to each other. Apparently that was good luck for us, too. We had our picture taken next to it.

We bought some meat on sticks from some of the vendors, who were like the Japanese equivalent of carnies, only less backwoods. We also bought some sweet little sandwich pastry things, and the vendor at that stand threw in some extras for us, probably because it was late in the day, close to closing time. We snacked on our chicken as we made the long trek back home.

Yuuka and I joined her mom to go visit her two friends, the cake shop employees, and deliver gifts of some of the soba we made. We didn’t step into the first house, but before we left Okaa-san mentioned that Yuuka and I were engaged. We were congratulated. At the second home, we were invited in for tea and dessert. I don’t have the slightest clue what the dessert was, but it was rather tasty. It was almost like Jell-o, but more solid and with a more subtle (less kool-aid-like) flavor. The woman was Okaa-san’s best friend from college, with whom she’d gone to London years ago. Her husband reminded me of an actor I’ve seen in foreign films, but it seems like the one I’m thinking of was French, Spanish, or Mexican. He was friendly and personable. He was a man’s man. When we were ready to leave, Yuuka told them that we were engaged. They congratulated us heartily, and when we left, they said that they hope to see us again soon. I told them that I’m looking forward to my next visit, that maybe we would be neighbors sometimes soon. They said they’d like that.

We returned home to eat our little sandwich pastry things. Apparently Oto-san had started in on them early. They were his favorite. We laughed as they told stories about how he always ate his share of goodies like that fast, and then moped around while others savored theirs. I can relate. We drank tea and went to bed, looking ahead to the last full day of the visit.

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