I bought my first PC back in 1983 and have been caught up in the digital age ever since. Everyone in the house is equipped with a smart phone and I geek out over the latest, most advanced digital camera systems. On the other hand, I write with fountain pens, I prefer self-winding wristwatches and I grill over red oak. No doubt this attraction to low tech manifests an inner need to cling to the familiar in an age of ever-increasing change. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Indeed, I derive no small enjoyment from putting up with the obvious shortcomings of certain technically outdated gadgets.
Fountain Pens and Memories
Take my fixation with fountain pens for example. Over the years I’ve collected about half a dozen various fountain pens. I am no avid collector, nor am I a calligrapher. I just like the way ink flows off the nib. So much that I’m willing to put up with ink that doesn’t dry fast and easily smudges; with tedious manual cleanings; with occasional accidental ink stains. But I like that I don’t dispose the pen when the ink runs out; that I can pretty much remember the history of each of my pens; that each pen has its own distinct personality and idiosyncrasies. Recently I reconnected with a pen I bought as a reward for graduating from college way back when. The German-made Cross Signature had been put away for a time, so as I recharged it with ink, my mind drifted to when I first started using fountain pens – and my thoughts shifted to Japan. You see, Japanese Kanji characters lose their stroke-like appearance when written by a ballpoint pen but that’s where fountain pens excel. I discovered the elegance of fountain pens in Japan.
In the spirit of reconnecting for me and new discovery for my family, we spent spring break this year in Japan. I find it almost impossible to fathom that 37 years has passed since I first traveled to Japan as a totally green, wet-behind-the-ears missionary. I’d never been on an airplane before, I hardly spoke a word of Japanese, I grew up in a town of 16,000 with one stoplight, I never lived away from Mom and Dad and I was dropped in the middle of the Osaka concrete jungle. The first month I was so homesick I physically hurt. But I quickly grew to love Japan, Japanese food, Japanese culture, Japanese language and especially the Japanese people.
My affinity for photography was also born in Japan. I had a Yashica TL Electro-X that my dad picked up for $50 second-hand before I left the US. I stitched together a case out of saddle leather for it and I was good to go. In Japan, we missionaries were given one day a week to do chores and go site seeing. On a very tight budget and over two years I shot about 1800 Fuji-chrome slides (now digitized). In today’s digital age, I just shot 2,364 images in 7 days. Indeed, photography is one area that immensely benefits from digital advances and I couldn’t dream of retreating to film.
Our plans in Japan were to spend 3 days in and around Tokyo and then revisit a couple towns I used to live in: Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture and Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture. In Tokyo, we met my dear friends, Koji and Tadayoshi Furikado whom I met when they were just teenagers. Like so many others, both moved away from their childhood home to the greater Tokyo area after university for work. Now they have teenage sons of their own that we got to meet for the first time. They took us to view the Sakura at Ueno Park. Although the timing of cherry blossom season is a bit unpredictable, we were fortunate to hit the peak.
As a missionary, we lived on $150 per month for housing, food and all other expenses. The yen exchange rate then was 250 per dollar, but that still didn’t leave much to spend on film. Thankfully, I was able to afford to do some things this trip I never had the chance to 37 years ago. One new experience was to ride the Izumo Sunrise overnight sleeper train from Tokyo to Matsue. Another fun experience was to stay at a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) in Matsue City with its own onsen (hot spring). We enjoyed wonderfully beautiful Japanese Kaiseki meals in our own assigned tatami room for dinner and breakfast and relaxed in the onsen each evening. Now that is really the way to go!
Matsue is one of 12 towns that have “original” castles. We had a great time exploring the castle grounds pretending to ward off invading clans from above the ishigaki stone walls while cherry blossom petals fluttered down all around us. The castle was built in 1611 and was one of the only places in town I still recognized. We also enjoyed a visit to Adachi Museum of Art in nearby Yasugi. The draw for me was the museum’s Japanese gardens, which have been voted the best Japanese garden for the last ten years running by Sukiya Living Magazine.
We transferred to Kurashiki City and stayed in a hotel adjacent to the historic Bikan quarter of town. White-washed, tile-roofed Edo-period (1611-1868) storehouses and town-houses flank a willow-lined canal in this prosperous ancient merchant town. This area is designated as a national traditional building preservation district and attracts a fair number of tourists. The old architecture is a favorite of mine and thankfully the area is virtually unchanged since I was here nearly four decades ago. I also got to reconnect with my dear friend Iwao Furikado, the father of Koji and Tadayoshi over a sukiyaki dinner at his home.
If you plan to visit Japan, I highly recommend you go with a tour unless you speak Japanese or are very adventurous. Our good friend Martin Bailey lives in Japan, speaks Japanese and runs an amazing winter nature/wildlife tour to Hokkaido (the next available one is in 2014). Joe Van Os and Daniel J. Cox run similar tours. Sukiya Living Magazine offers a walking Japanese garden tour to Kyoto in the spring and fall that looks very interesting (http://www.rothteien.com/tour/tourshome.htm) which is focused on Japanese culture/aesthetics.
Some more brief tips:
1) The Japanese are among the most polite, hospitable people on earth; please reciprocate with an appreciative attitude.
2) English is not widely spoken, but just about any stranger is eager to help.
3) Be open to new experiences.
4) Tipping is not a custom.
5) Stuff is expensive, but food can be reasonable if you’re prepared to eat local street cuisine, which is the most fun anyway (try okonomiyaki or takoyaki).
6) Pack VERY light, especially if you plan to use the cost-effective public transportation. Each in our family of four only took one small carry-on luggage and one handbag for the 9-day trip (compact camera gear is a distinct plus). We could fit our entire luggage and ourselves in one taxi.
7) A discounted JR-Rail pass for foreigners can only be purchased prior to entering the country.
8) Woodworking details at temples and shrines make great photo subjects.
9) For other fun photo ops, watch for newlywed couples dressed in traditional costume or monks/priests at the temples and shrines (temple: Buddhist; shrine: Shinto).
10) In addition to the big cities, visit an out-of-the-way village or two.
I’m blessed I could reconnect with Japan and introduce my family to beloved friends and places. The trip helped mold our family, increase mutual understanding and prepare us for future mind and soul-broadening experiences. I can’t recommend visiting Japan enough.