Sunday January 11, 1998
At least I slept well until 4:00. I laid awake waiting for the real light of dawn to come into the strange room. Finally Werner woke at seven (he is so regular -- almost nothing interferes with his inner schedule), we showered and began to dress. We knew we would be met at the Narita airport by Mutsuo Shukuya and that we should be in our best traveling clothes. I was amazed how long it took to get dressed in unfamiliar clothes out of suitcases that did not yet have their final organization. At the last moment I decided it was safer to wear the real pearls I inherited from Werner's mother. They looked incongruous with my new black Birkenstocks. But I did feel good in the black velvet suit as long as I could not see my feet.
The dining room was hot and over-crowded with people here for the Green Bay Packers football game with the Forty-Niners in the afternoon. I picked at a muffin while Werner had a full American breakfast wondering if this was the last time he'd get eggs and toast and coffee for the next ten days.
Getting on the airport shuttle bus made me feel that we were truly on our way and a huge cloud of release surrounded me. Though I hate the nervous vibes that clang and bang against one in an airport, I felt like an island of calm as we moved through the lines of passengers checking in. When it was our turn, a Japanese lady took care of us. I was slightly shocked as Werner became quite talkative -- telling her that we had been invited to Japan by the Emperor to attend the New Year's Poetry Party. She became quite flustered and could hardly manage to make herself do the accustomed jobs as she asked us questions about how we got this honor and how we 'knew' the Emperor.
Then I understood why Werner had suddenly became such a name-dropper. When we had gotten our tickets, we had asked for seats on the exit so our long legs would have space in which to stretch out. Yes, there just happened to be two seats free on the exit. . . And I wished we were flying on Japan Air Lines instead of United. Maybe there we could have gotten bumped up a class - into wider seats.
As we went through Security, the guard, a Japanese-American saw we were headed for Tokyo and as he handed us back our tickets, he surprised me.
S. F. airport
the security guard says,
In response, I stammered out my first real Japanese, "Genki desu - I am fine."
The day was partly cloudy but the rain was still holding off as we boarded the plane. And then we sat there. A plugged drain in one of the cabin kitchens had to be unplugged. The time dragged by workers came and went. The football game started. By tuning into the cockpit we could hear the radio broadcast as the flight crew listened. Werner was trying to sleep so he did not hear the captain telling the ground crew that he was getting a red light on his check of the automatic landing guide and would someone come out and check that. Hmmmm. After a bit, he asked someone if they would sign off the work or if he should. It was not clear to me whether the fix had truly been done or not. I comforted myself with the idea that the captain was as eager as I was for a safe landing in Japan.
on the plane wing
Instead of taking off at 11:30, it was 12:45 when the tires left American soil and we were finally on our way. The flight was fairly bumpy and all too soon we were out of radio broadcast range and I could no longer follow the football game. Later, in the midst of the silliness of the movie, "George of the Jungle", the captain interrupted with the news that the Forty-niners had lost.
in the plane
the carpeting looks
the way I feel
Neither of us could sleep, I kept reading the same page over and over in my book, but somehow the hours passed. As we neared Tokyo they reported snow and that we would have to circle by flying 80 miles north of the airport. When we came down, we could see flakes against the dark parts of the wings. One of the flight attendants who lived in Tokyo told how on her last trip home the snow was so deep she couldn't get home. The snow got thicker and thicker. At times the wing, which was just outside the window completely disappeared in a white-out. I wondered if they had really gotten the automatic landing device fixed properly. While I worried about this, the plane began to shudder and we realized we were on the ground and three hours late for our arrival.
In the airport we wondered how Mr. Shukuya was occupying his time and where he was as we shuffled from Immigration to our baggage to customs, down another series of long hallways to be spilled out into a lobby of waiting people. We looked around and no one looked like the person in Mr. Shukuya's photograph. I huddled against a newsstand to get out of the press of people while Werner ran off to look for him.
After a short forever I saw hands waving by Werner's black hat and through the crowd came the smiling face from the photograph. How thankful we were to have someone shepherding us up and down the series of escalators, following arrows attached to signs that had no meaning for us. Disorientated and thoroughly confused we tried our best to wobble our luggage along at Mr. Shukuya's younger pace. People kept crowding between us and there were times when we completely lost sight of him and had to wait in place for him to return for us.
Finally we came to barriers where he handed us tickets and we went through gates to descend into the bowels of the train station. All my hatred and bad memories of Hamburg's U-Bahn system descended upon me. Just then we stopped by the same tiled walls and Mr. Shukuya got his camera for his first pictures of us. I was 18 hours into not being at my best.
Then the train arrived and suddenly everything felt better. Clean and quiet, like an airplane that did not bounce, the train ride was soothing. As we came closer to the lights of the city, we could see the huge flakes of snow falling softly between the blocks of darkness. The first Japanese words which came to mind were "yuki hana" (snow blossoms) -- such an accurate description of these extraordinarily large flakes that seem to be dropped from a great heights.
All too soon we had to get off the train, grab up the heavy bags again and charge into a new hell. This one was the subway station where there were no escalators. Werner and Mr. Shukuya had to lug each suitcase up the stairs while we played "foxes and geese in a boat". Finally we came to more gates where tickets were inserted and given back to us, more stairs and then we could experience the rush and shove ill-fame of Tokyo subways at rush-hour. I am afraid that we impolitely banged more than a few delicate ankles as we each wrestled our share of baggage aboard. One older man looked at us with international compassion in his eyes, and gave up his secure spot standing at the end of the seats so we could pile the suitcases together. I found that fighting to keep myself upright and out of any stranger's lap transferred my anxiety into useful action. Still I was very glad to get off the subway train.
Then there were more gates and we find out that the tickets we had retrieved from the previous gate were needed to get us out of this series. We were still gasping for breath from carrying all the luggage up an enormous flight of crowded stairs, as we stopped in the flow of moving bodies to search our pockets for the proper tickets. Werner, white-faced, could not find his among the many tickets and stubs he acquired through the journey. I was busy with the thought that at the worst Mr. Shukuya would have to pay for us again to get us out of here. But he spoke rapidly with a man at the desk and we were motioned through with a glint of pity in his eye.
Next we were hustled -- slowly -- into a tiny lace-covered seats of a taxi in which our luggage did not fit. Werner sat in the front seat while I sat in the back with our biggest suitcase beside me and on top of that, with his feet higher than his head, sat Mr. Shukuya. He wanted to go directly to the restaurant, where he knew, from several calls on his cell-phone, that the guests were already waiting for us. I surprised myself by insisting that I at least have 10 minutes for a quick shower and he agreed.
In our room at the Tokyo Palace Garden Hotel, for a second, I stretched out on the bed and did not want to move until morning. But the Capricorn nature in me got me going again and soon we were back in the lobby. Mr. Shukuya even looked as if he, too, had rested in the deep leather chairs.
Back out in the night, I was so thrilled that the huge flakes were still falling out of the darkness. It felt like our arrival was being blessed with the best the weather could offer us. We quickly walked the three blocks to a tiny doorway flanked by the traditional New Year's decorations -- three huge columns of bamboo surrounded by pine boughs in a straw matting holder. There was no time to stare at them. Quickly propelled between a few tables, we came into a tiny room covered with the straw mats, a low table where the waiting guests were rising to meet us.
Mr. Misao Okimoto, a professional translator, took over the introductions. First was Mr. Hojo Nakajima, the Vice Grand Master of the Ceremonies at the Imperial Household, who we knew from seeing a video of a performance of his tanka set to music at a concert in the American Embassy last summer, which I had reviewed in an issue of Lynx.
Then came Mr. Kazuo Ito, a publisher of Star and Forest and author of 16 books himself. As the evening went along we learned he was also an astrologer and very perceptive.
Then came Takashi Aoyagi-san (we were told this was the way the members of the group referred to each other) who had made the video I had seen and who would be making a video for us of the concert planned for our tanka on the evening of the 14th. Aoyagi-san, in addition to being an Assistant Professor at Tokyo Seitoku College was the Japanese voice of Mickey Mouse for Disney Productions.
Before each of these persons we practiced our new-found bows and nods, but then from the low table rose Father Neal H. Lawrence. I was so touched at finally meeting him, after all our letters and phone calls to publish his book, Shining Moments, I forgot my Japanese facade and we simply embraced. It was so good to see his face and his whole radiant being.
Everyone had been waiting for so long to begin eating that we quickly found our places and the women in kimono began placing the trays and plates of tiny food landscapes before us. But first (and to my surprise) beer was offered in tiny juice glasses for a toast and a clicking of glasses all around. Then the name cards were passed around as people began to sample the tiny tidbits of food.
Several times, at home, Werner and I had talked about obtaining chopsticks to begin our practice, but chopsticks were not to be found in Gualala. So here we were with these distinguished guests, at two o'clock in our morning, having our first lessons. Within minutes I felt I had the hang of the art and was politely tasting each new flavor.
It had been my impression that Japanese meals were very small as seen from the photos of these various dishes with only a few wisps of food artistically arranged on each of them. What I didn't know was that there was an almost endless stream of these dishes, alternated with covered bowls of soups, each containing large pieces of dumplings or fish or vegetable in a delicious broth. As the dishes kept coming and disappearing, I realized that I had better restrain myself to just tasting or I would be too full to finish the meal.
As we all made a pause in our eating, wooden boxes attractively tied with woven bands in brown, tan and white were taken up by Shukuya-san and with his speech of welcome for us to Japan, presented first one to me and one to Werner. As I untied the bow, I was told that Nakajima-san, using his arts learned as Master of Ceremonies at the Palace had himself tied the ribbons.
The box held a huge tea bowl made by Shukuya-san. Inside the bowl he had written in Japanese his translation of one of my tanka, and on the outside was the English version. He not only has a beautiful handwriting but made perfect bowls, even down to trimming the foot exactly right. I saw on the date that he had made the bowls on June 8th and I was touched that he had been preparing for our visit for so long. My bowl had a warm, pinkish glaze and Werner's, with one of his tanka, had a masculine tan tone.
After we passed the bowls around so everyone could admire them, Nakajima-san took over the job of repacking the bowls in their tissue and retying the bows to their original preciseness.
How glad I was that in the hotel room, we had taken a few seconds to pull out copies of our newest book, made just for this visit -- In The Presence, which we were able to present to each person.
Then Shukuya-san handed me another box wrapped in Western style gift paper. I was very touched. I had told him I was interested in having a set of the Hyaku-Nin-Isshi (One Hundred Poems from One Hundred Poets). This is a card game, much like our "Authors" or "Old Maid", which is played by matching up the beginning three lines of famous tanka with the complete poem with woodcuts of the authors. Since this game is only played at New Year's, Shukuya-san said it probably would not be on the market by the time we arrived, so he purchased a very special set for me -- one that included a tape of the poems being chanted in Japanese. This was the beginning of an important part of my tanka education: learning the many ways tanka are either recited, chanted, sung or even treated as operatic arias.
Though it was five o'clock in California's morning, these words came to me from the evening.
For Mutsuo Shukuya and Hojo Nakajima:
so neatly tying
up the packages from Shukuya
the real gifts
traveling around the world
connecting tanka poets
arrival in Japan
with the last of the day's light
yuki no hana
blessings from the gods
on the white-haired poets
As everyone walked with us back to the hotel, the night felt so very special. The air was cold and crisp and occasionally in the street lights still a flake or two would drift slowly down into our group.
out of the darkness
of the flower snowflakes
favors our first evening
Proceed to Tuesday
January 13 , 1998.