Friday, August 24, 2007


Japan is an interesting mix of ancient and modern. Everyone has a cell phone. Everyone's cell phone can take pictures and video and access the Internet. In fact, according to our tour guide, many Japanese teens have two cell phones: one number for mom and dad and the other for friends.

However, Japanese housewives still prefer to hang their laundry out to dry. Nearly every house, condo, townhouse, and apartment has a balcony. And laundry or futons or tatami mats hanging in the "fresh" air (how fresh can the air be next to a freeway in Tokyo?).

The best part of the trip was staying with Japanese Girl Scout families in the Osaka area. We were there for nine days, including two days of camping. Two of us leaders stayed with a Japanese leader I've had the pleasure of meeting when the Japaneses Girl Scouts came to the U.S. Her English is very good--unless I talk too fast (which I have a tendency to do when I get on a roll). We had some interesting discussions, especially over beer at the end of the day. Many of the problems we have here in the U.S. are also in Japan. They have homeless who sleep in public parks during the day and live in shelters made of blue tarp under bridges and overpasses. Students are apathetic about their studies, preferring to spend their time shopping and texting each other. They are ignorant of history, due in part to the American Occupation of Japan, when Japanese history was suppressed as being "too militant." We didn't discuss WWII much, but her perspective was a surprise to me--Japan liberated Southeast Asia from the colonial (European) powers. I wish we had more time to discuss this.

At the Edo Museum in Tokyo (I needed a whole lot more time there!), there was a whole section about WWII and the postwar Occupation. Again, I was fascinated by the opportunity to see a familiar event through the lens of the "other side." The exhibit also included the Articles of Surrender, signed by General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito. Someday scholars will study WWII dispassionately--but we're not there yet.

The weather was hot and humid. Very hot and humid. My feet and ankles were swollen for most of the trip. I learned to carry a bottle of water and a small wash cloth with me. Except for ice cream, the Japanese do not eat on the sidewalks. Nor did we see them chugging from water bottles. That rule we violated, but the girls were very good about not eating in public.

I made it to the top of Mt. Fuji. The Japanese have a saying, "A wise man climbs Fuji once. A foolish man climbs it twice." Yep. It's an endurance test: both ascending and descending. My legs were sore for a week--which made using a squat toilet a challenge--and I ended up losing the toenails from both big toes. I ended up wearing my sandals most of the time, including the trip home. I can check Mt. Fuji from my Life List of Things I Want to Do.

Hubs and DS#2 climbed Mt. Fuji a week later--during a typhoon. Hubs didn't make it to the top, but DS#2 did (for the second time. But at 17, you're allowed to be foolish!).

The food was incredible. The peaches were extraordinary: huge & juicy. But the Japanese peel them and slice them. They also peel their grapes, which we found to be just like the red and the Flame grapes we get here in California. The local specialty is "takoyaki"- octopus, green onion, and cheese baked in batter--served with mayonnaise, a special sauce, and seaweed bits that move and curl. I like octopus and squid, but some of the girls heard the word "tako" and thought "taco." Oops. Every good household in Osaka has a takoyaki maker, which looks kind of like a waffle iron, only with small circular impressions so the batter bakes into a ball.

And since we were visitors, we were excuses for parties and dinners and barbecues. Many of the women involved were themselves part of the Exchange twenty and thirty years ago. I met DS#2's Japanese "mom" and discovered that she had met a friend of mine and the aunt of one of our girls during her exchange trip. (My Girl Scout friends here are some how less surprised by this than I was!) DD#2 and I met DD#1's Japanese family and reunited with the young woman who stayed with us in 2001. She's a mom now, with a daughter and a son. I had hoped we would see her, so I had brought a board book about San Francisco--"so they will be ready when it's their turn to come!"

We were invited back, with or without the Scouts. :) There is so much I still want to see: the National Museum in Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka Castle, Hiroshima, Miyajima. The best weather is in the autumn, when the leaves turn color. My host family has a home in the mountains and would love to take us hiking there. (And they promise me it's considerably cooler!) Their daughter saw my pictures of the Embarcadero Center lit up for Christmas and the fact the weather is so mild--she wants to come here then! (Of course, we'd love to have her.)

We had a grand send-off at Kansai International Airport. Many of the families came to see us off. After we checked in our luggage, we formed a huge Friendship Circle in the lobby, sang a couple of songs, cried a few tears, exchanged the last few gifts and pictures, took a couple of more group photos, promised to keep in touch, and encouraged them to come visit us in two years.

I can't wait!