Dear family and friends,
At last report, we were sailing on a fast, efficient train from Kobe to two stops past Tokyo station, where we met my dear professor, Yash Owada, and his family as they were readying to enter the station for a train to their family home. Though this meeting was by design, it had every earmark of the "miracle" that Yash would declare it two days later. We went with Yash and his wife, Judy, and daughter, Keiko, and her children, Eli and Brynna, Yash and Judy were like father and mother to me at johnston College, more than forty years ago! Their daughter keiko was my favorite Owada. And we delighted in attending both Hanna's and Eli's celebrations of becoming Bar and Bat Mitvah. Iwaki, the Owada home town, is the largest city in Japan, in terms of land, a city combined of five separate cities by Yash's father in his service as mayor over a period of more than twenty years. It is the San Bernadino of Japan, a description that brought smiles to Yash, as I coined it, because of its proximity to Redlands.
This completed the range of our journey to Japan. From Ryokan to Buddhist Temple to Business Hotel, we added a seaside resort, with an Ansen, a large beautiful natural hotsprings mineral waters, where we stayed with the Owada family and dined in what we call the American plan, of meals included. I thought I'd died and gone straight to heaven. The meals, the company, the warm waters to soak in, and a walk to the Pacific ocean from East to West were key features of delight. Our beds laid out on tatami floors (covered in reed mats, with kimono robes and tea service included. The Pacific was amazingly cold, and I remember swimming in it in younger years.
But the personal importance of this trip was really two fold. The first to visit the home of the Owada family that has been in the family since the sixteenth century; its majesty and beauty amplified by pine woods, rice fields, their own reservoir, and a family grave that now includes Yash's mother and father, their ashes mixed with generations of Owadas. It felt like an incredible honor to have a glimpse, a very personal one, of my dear professor and mentor's early life. Yash regaled us with the pain of planting rice fields during the starvation years of the war, and reflected some on what it was like to grow up in a family that was given a front row seat in the theater of World War Two, as Yash's father was an important official emerging in post war Japan. Part of my admission to this moment was that i served as a driver to Yssh's father, when he visited Redlands when I was a student. This connection was remembered these many years later. It is quite an extraordinary testament of the culture of this family that it was even recollected, but that is not an isolated event in either the Owada family or in Japan to be sure.
I was honored to be able to ask questions that I had never even thought of before. How it was for Yash to grow up with the passions of war from a young Japanese child's perspective. How he celebrated when "Balloon Bombs" were launched to the West, and how life changed when the Emporer said to stop the war-- a distinction with surrender that was easy to embrace by an adolescent. This range of emotions only added more depth and color to my deep feelings of gratitude for Yash and his family's connection to my journey in this world. It has been amplified and expanded in substance and aim. No doubt, I would have been a different human being and Jew were it not for this family. Their home has inspired my home and the homes it has inspired. Their respect and honor for the highest values and humor and love has added to my deep love of life and them.
The second dimension of this journey was sharing it with Laurie, and oh, how wonderful it was to see how she connected and delighted in this awesome experience. Of course, we were able to add to our rich experiences on this our second honeymoon.
Well, we left Yash on the way to giving a lecture to young Japanese mothers on the merits of multiple language learning through immersion, and ventured out into the big city of Tokyo. Laurie wanted to walk through the Edo museum, and I longed to attend a sumo wrestling competition, and wouldn't you know it that they both were right next door to each other in this massive city of Tokyo (in terms of population, at thirty three million, Tokyo is the largest city in the world).
Laurie was a little skeptical of my desire to see Sumo wrestling, to say the least. I'm sure the idea of overweight men banging their bodies together to either push or throw the opponent struck her as barbaric, but I was supported by Judy Owada, who weighed in on having a great time of it at just the right moment. You might know that tickets were sold out, so I was sentenced to tour the Edo museum, but by this time, Laurie, amazingly, had signed up fully to supporting me in my disappointment. So, we went to the Edo museum, and bumped into a couple Yalee accapella singers we had met our first night at Narita airport. It just so happened Laurie saw a sweat shirt of one of the students that kindled our conversation. And then, it was like meeting old friends for lunch, catching up on our journeys from one moment to the next. I must confess that this was the only restaurant that fully got our special diets. Maybe it's the impact of the war experience (years of hunger) that makes them so disinclined to minister to special diets. But in any event, we left this meal and toured what truly is an awesome glimpse of the last three hundred years of Japanese history. It was only a glimpse, but it filled in the gaps some of the experiences that we had had in Kyoto temples and castles and gardens, and the family estate of the Owada family. We, of course, only scratched the surface of this deep, deep culture and history, but I know for both of us, the twelve days we spent in Japan exposed us to a range and fabric of life that opened our souls and touched our hearts. It is amazing to me now that Japan as a country and culture is in so many ways so efficient and calming, even as it opens eyes to unique glimpses of quiet and embellished beauty. I can't remember what stirred us at the airport to experience this, but two short bleats on a horn were noteworthy, because they were the only two bleats we had heard in twelve days of traveling on bikes, in busses, trains, and in walking. Amazing: I can now think of Japan as a two honk country and culture. Oh, by the way, after we toured the Edo history,we came across a man, who I had suspected was a scalper leaving the stadium area. He knew what we wanted and offered us two tickets to the remaining hour of the sumo wrestling finals-- the last of the season. He offered them to us for ten thousand yen, less than half their original price, and we ended up paying seven (about seventy dollars for the two. Never mind that we had no idea whether they were for that day's matches, or that they were located in different sections of the stadium, or that they might have been used already, but as luck would have it, we were invited to watch the matches together, sitting on the floor, in about half of the space of a Hollywood Bowl box, shared with two other passionate Sumo fans. They not only welcomed us, they taught us everything we know about Sumo wresting. You might be amazed at how Laurie's eyes were opened to how sports can be a window onto culture. Because this was the same Tokyo, a city where everyone on a business day is dressed up in a suit, and reduced to texting on their cell phones instead of having any contact whasoever with other people. Amazingly these same citizens were sitting together as families and friends, drinkiing and cheering with national passions stirred by the national favorites fighting wrestlers from places like Estonia and Russia. We were swept up with the same celebration of being able to watch these huge men in costumes that revealed most of their immense butts, with thighs that were as big as trees, crashing into each other with the force of professional football tackles, without any of the gear. Yes, Laurie was cheering and delighting in the response of these drunk and frenzied neighbors, who more or less adopted these caucasian neophytes. Alas, their english was no better than our Japanese, but we were again Arigato grateful for the glimpse and connection to this deeply spiritual moment. At least that's how I would describe it.
And then, we left Japan in the dark of a new day, and arrived at midnight in a very, very humid airport outside Bangkok Thailand. You might know that humidity and heat are not my favorite conditions. They remind me of Florida in the summer. Thank God for holy air conditioning. The airport, the cab, that was able to drive us to a hotel near the airport, despite the curfew, stirred by recent demonstrations by "Red shirts" and violent spill over, of an encounter that we have absolutely no feel for the issues. Thank the Holy One for the air conditioning in the airport, the cab to our hotel and in our room after about an hour, and we woke to the question of what do we do for about four hours in Thailand, when we're hungry and wanting a glimpse of something, we had no idea of what when we woke. Well, Laurie was particularly motivated, and she settled on investing in a driver to a place they call the "ancient city." Bangkok is still off limits, we were warned, and there is very much an air of "we have idea idea of what we are getting into, but again, the air conditioning in the cab was working, so we paid for a trip to the "ancient city" and a restaurant that ended up at the airport. So, here it is, the culmination of our risk adventure. The ancient city, as it turns out, is a village of amazing replica Temples from all over the country of Siam become Thailand. Admission included a couple bicycles ridden thorugh the Disneyland of spiritual life in this amazing country. Each site has its own distinctive beauty and history, and while it was just fabricated, it was done so immaculately and on such a grand scale that fhe hour bike ride through Floridian heat, we could not have come up with a more perfect experience, within the time limits. Add to this a gigantically tasty meal at a open air restaurant, and I'd say again, thank the Holy One for a cab with great air conditioning and we made it to the airport, with time to spare. We'll send you visual evidence when we can figure out how to send photos onto and from our ipads. Apparently, apple hasn't quite caught up to our journey's needs.
That leaves the flight into India. I should have sensed something was different when the line for admittance into the country was four times as long in the citizens lines as in the foreigner's line...maybe ten times as long. There is no way to estimate the numbers of people anywhere in India, I think. Especially in our cab ride to our hotel room. We had no idea what we would experience. I'd have to say that the cab ride from the airport was definitely one of the "E ticket rides at the old Disneyland, of my short life. You might know that most Indians speak some kind of English, but understanding what is going on is amazingly difficult to place. We were bombarded with images in our first joy ride through the streets of Kolkatta. Of course we had to walk a football field's length of humanity in the monsoon thick heat of a late Kokatta afternoon, before we could withdraw money from the ATM and find the prepaid taxi service in the other terminal. Laurie saw three girls, dressed in their very best dresses, visiting relatives, from Delhi, while I luxuriated in the air conditiong of the ATM. I''ve now learned that I have a "continuous" account as opposed to a "savings" account, and rupees are about forty to the dollar, and go much, much further. Our cab ride would have cost fity to a hundred dollars in any other city in the world, cost about four or five. I don't know how the cabbie affords the gas.
I said it was rush hour, but maybe that's the time of day. Needless to say, India is not a two honk country. In fact, in this one and a half hour ride through the streets of Kolkatta, we heard more horns honk than in both of our lives together. I think that would have been true in the first five minutes. And I said "E ticket" which for those of you that aren't old enough to remember, an "E ticket" used to be the most tresured experiences at Disneyland, and this ride was part Space mountain roller coaster, part demolition derby bumper cars. Our driver was a fullback in the open field driving of the streets of this most populated city in India. Laurie was amazed a the billboards advertizing education. I was most amazed at how two lanes of cars could become three or four. Yes, we thought of Avital most of the trip. Shes tried to describe these adventures in taxis, rickshaws, and busses, but none of her descriptions could have prepared us for what we saw. I've never been able to touch the cars we were passing at high speeds before, but I was tempted. To say nothing of our dear cab driver's moves through this mass of humanity. Honking the horn as if it were a percussion instrument in a symphony of cacophonous music. We pssed smaller stuffed volkswagon type, along with rickshaws pulling heavy loads uphill, along with people darting through traffic, along with open air busses, rickety, and damaged. My eyes caught the eyes of a young girl on a bus, the eyes of old men on the sidewalks. We smelled spices of the old city in Jerusalem, and marvelled at this the longest ride without a seat belt in reent times. How did Avital do it? we wondered. For six weeks in the suburbs of Dehli? How do people live like this? In heat so thick, and no, our cab was NOT air conditioned! You know, we passed people riding bikes, motorcycles darting in and out of traffic, as we foraged through streets without lanes. Eventually, we came to a point where a large truck coming the other way and an SUV going our way were just stuck, and our cab driver just said, "You better just walk the rest of the way, which was only three blocks, with our over stuffed backpacks and day packs and rolling suitcase.
We are staying at the Fairlawn Hotel, a vintage hotel with a LOT of character on the walls. And yes, our room is very well air conditioned! Though I'd resolved to leave this city immediately, and fly to the Himalayas, we will now spend the two allotted days here, exploring our air conditioned room, and venture out for tasting what this dear city has to offer. We are near a park, a river, and a sea of humanity that is really an ocean to drown in. I don't know what we are looking for here. Oh, I suppose we'll pay homage to the sacred sites. There are a couple synagoeus mentioned in the guidebooks. We'll make a pilgrimage to Mother Theresa's grave, and then we'll get the hell out of here. But you know what amazes me most is as I looked into the eyes of an old man on a bike in the heat of this thick and perilous street, he looked sublime, calm, seasoned, and at peace and through I'd certainly describe our journey to this point as being a glimpse of hell (Florida and skid row wrapped up and spread over an ocean), I must say, I'm enjoying being here for the inherent challenge to find anything. So, now it's wait til next time, and here's to sending you a Rick Hartoch "Wow, wow, wow!" And to Len Atkins, whose Sou'ester musing on his journey in recent days brought me close to tears of just how fulll life can be, and how transient and wise, I send you all love. (And happy birthday to Michael!)
Lots of it! Laurie does too.
Gary, Abba, Rabbi Gary, or what you will...