Ojizo-Sama Statues

Summary: Encounters with many Jizo statues, which protect and bless children, particularly those who passed before their time

Jizo, or Ojizo-Sama (お地蔵様), may be seen all over Japan, especially near cemeteries, shrines, and roadsides. (I made mention of them briefly in a previous post.)

They are said to be the guardians of the souls of children, particularly those who passed too soon (who died before their parents, still-borns, and miscarried or aborted fetuses). Some also believe Ojizo-Sama protect travelers and firefighters.

In some Buddhist traditions, it is believed that the souls of children who die before their parents are trapped in the underworld. They are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River to the afterlife because they have not accumulated sufficient good deeds to compensate for having made their parents suffer. Jizo saves these souls.

They are easy to recognize. They are usually small stone statues wearing a red bib or bonnet. Some hold a cintamani (a sacred wish-fulfilling stone or jewel) in the left hand, and a staff in the right hand (to alert small animals and insects so they will not accidentally harm them).

I always found these diminutive statues comforting.

We saw many of these throughout our trip. Sometimes there was a single, small statue, sometimes a small cluster, and sometimes large groups of tiny Ojizo-Sama were assembled in one place. Here are a bunch of pictures of assorted Ojizo-Sama we encountered:

As I finished writing this entry, I recalled a Japanese folk story I learned as a child about a poor man and his wife. During a cold, snowy day, he passes five Ojizo-Sama statues, and thinking how cold they must be, brushes the snow of their heads and shoulders. He later buys hats for them with the money he was supposed to use to buy rice cakes to celebrate the new year. He returns and places the hats on them. Running out of hats, he removes the cloth from his own head to cover the last statue. For his kindness and generosity, he and his wife are woken in the middle of the night to find a wonderful gift of gratitude from the Jizo at his door. Here is retelling of the story.

I imagine the combination of the kind, smiling faces of the Ojizo-Sama, the remembrance and blessing of children, and the long-buried memory of this sweet folk tale is what makes seeing Ojizo-Sama so comforting and calming to me.

The Power of Sun and Wind

Summary: Japan is generating more renewable energy and exploring ways to reduce consumption. We see a steel factory completely powered by wind and solar power during the daytime.

While touring around Toyohashi, we saw large solar arrays and windmills. From our Wind City Hotel, we could see a Tokyo Steel factory with multiple wind turbines and a large field of solar panels. I was surprised to see they were all on the ground, since land is a precious commodity in Japan.

img_20161110_072700227When our hosts drove us to the top of Mt. Zao, we were afforded a commanding, panoramic view of Atsumi Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atsumi Peninsula. We could also see our hotel, the steel factory, and the windmills and solar panels.

Exhibits in the visitors building atop Mt. Zao showed the locations of the solar arrays and windmills, as well as kilowatts generated. My limited knowledge of Japanese and power generation prevented me from comprehending the numbers, but our hosts told us that the steel factory is completely powered by wind and solar during the day.

And it appears that additional fields of solar panels are planned for the future. It was inspirational to see! And just today I read an article about how one of the American Samoa Islands, previously 100% dependent on diesel power, is now 100% solar powered.

One exhibit showed some beautiful lighting solutions that used LED instead of incandescent or fluorescent lights. It was a good reminder that energy conservation can be implemented immediately while large windmills and solar panels take time and capital to implement.

Another fun interactive exhibit projected undersea creatures on the floor. As you walked around, some fishes swam away, while others were attracted to you. One wall was covered with leaves, and as you waved in front of the wall, flowers bloomed and strawberries appeared. I can imagine these exhibits can entertain children for a long time.

While debates rage over extraction, transportation, refining, and burning of petroleum products, this visit provided a glimpse of what is possible today in terms of renewable power and energy conservation. The Japanese have already had to make do with precious little space and resources, and they continue to innovate.

Getting There (2016 version)

Summary: Singapore Airlines was great, as expected, but maybe we’ll try a different route and airline next time.

We’d had such a pleasant experience flying Singapore Airlines that I wanted to use them again, even though that would require a switch at dreaded LAX. But Singapore is really that good.

Even in economy class, the seats are pretty comfortable (and that goes for an over-6-footer such as myself). The free movies, free drinks, excellent food, generous baggage allowance, and incredibly polite flight attendants make the long haul over the Pacific more than just bearable.

And purchasing our tickets about 9 months prior to departure ensured a reasonable price. The early purchase came back to bite us a bit, though. A significant change in departure time required us to stay overnight in an LAX hotel, with an unexpectedly extra amount of time and money.

One traveler in our group who is getting older decided to order wheelchair service. That turned out to be a real boon to our entire party. The various airport attendants were courteous and able to take us directly to our gates. We didn’t have to spend any time figuring out where our gates were, where the elevator was, etc. Plus, we enjoyed the option of boarding early.

Since Singapore allows two checked bags for free, however, overhead bin storage was never an issue, so boarding early wasn’t an urgent necessity. Also, at the other end, we had to wait for all the other passengers to deplane before we could. That wasn’t a big issue, either, since the large planes used by Singapore Airlines have multiple gangways, so boarding and deplaning go remarkably quickly. We made sure to tip our wheelchair attendants well.

Despite the superb food, beverage, service, and comfort on Singapore Airlines, I may try a different airline and route next time.

My cousins opted to fly from Vancouver, BC to Haneda on ANA (All Nippon Airlines). They enjoyed several advantages. First, their airfare was eye-poppingly low. Whereas anything around $1,000 US (round trip per person) or less is a really good deal from my home city (direct flights from Portland to Tokyo usually run $1,200 to $1,600), my cousins’ direct flight from Vancouver, BC to Haneda was under $700 US (I suspect the strong US dollar vs. the Canadian dollar helps reduce the cost).

Secondly, they flew into Haneda instead of Narita. Haneda is much closer to Tokyo and easier to get to and from than Narita. And they flew from Vancouver, BC, rather than through LAX. ANA and other Asian carriers, many of which receive high customer satisfaction reviews, fly between Vancouver, BC, and Japan.

That route is definitely worth considering for my next trip to Japan. Of course, I have to factor in the cost of getting to Vancouver from Portland, but if prices are as competitive as they were for my cousins, we may still save money, enjoy good service, and avoid both LAX and Narita airports.

Failure to communicate (electronically)

Summary: I planned carefully so I’d have a cell phone with data and GPS. It didn’t work out. Learn from my fail.

“The best laid plans…”

Before I left, I planned meticulously to give myself both the ability to text and call as well as to have data on a cell phone. I wanted to use GPS to track every place I went making it easier to find my way back (or allow others to do so), particularly without need of someone proficient in Japanese and English. I took a separate phone and bought a data plan with international data. I figured I would be set. I was wrong.

When I got to Japan, I fired up my second, data-only phone and waited. It never found a network. I double-checked all the settings. Still no success. I tried calling the cell company (I had recorded their 24/7 international support number before leaving) with my first (call/text) cell phone, only to get a recording that I could not make the call on a cell phone. So I had to call with a Japanese host’s land line. 18 minutes or so later, it was determined my data-only phone would not work. The problem? The phone I designated for data only did not cover the cell phone frequencies needed in Japan. I had neglected to follow my own instructions.

So I had a couple choices. I could:

  1. Upgrade my call/text phone plan for more data (very expensive)
  2. Buy or rent a cell phone in Japan for data (very expensive)
  3. Find another possible phone and get a data plan
  4. Go without data (except when I could find free Wifi)

I decided to try plan 3. My brother had his iPhone 4s with him, and after some translated troubleshooting at a local cell phone store, it was determined that yes, his phone had the correct frequencies and was not locked. But there was still a problem: you cannot simply buy a SIM card in Japan and insert it like you can in the US and most other countries. In Japan, you must buy a phone and plan, or have an existing Japan address/phone number. So that was out.

So I ended up going without mobile phone data on this trip. I only was able to use the intermittently available free Wifi at hotels or host’s homes. There may have been options to sign up for a nationwide Wifi plan (through SoftBank, Docomo, or other companies), but I couldn’t figure out their plans/policies while in-country, so I gave up.

Lessons learned:

  1. Be sure to check the cell phone frequencies in the country you are visiting and verify the phone you are going to use supports those frequencies
  2. Be sure you have a data plan that will work before you go to that country, or make sure you will definitely be able to obtain a SIM card after you arrive. Don’t assume it will be as simple as it can be here in the US.

Next time I go to Japan I’ll make sure I have a working phone and data plan. If not, I plan to rent a Wifi hotspot for the duration of my trip.

Visiting the Sugihara Museum

Summary: A trip to visit the Sugihara Museum yields unexpected beauty, joy, and several opportunities to foster positive international relations.

One of my goals was to travel to the Sugihara Memorial Museum at his birthplace in Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture, about 30 km northeast of Inuyama, the town where my cousin lives.


Chiune Suigara was an amazing man who has been credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing from Europe during World War II. While he was serving as vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania, hundreds of Jews came to the consulate begging for visas to Japan. Sugihara asked if he could issue the visas to those who requested them, despite the fact that few met Japan’s strict visa requirements. He was told no.

After reportedly sleeping on it a single night, Sugihara-san decided to disobey orders, and began granting the visas. Thousands of Jews fortunate enough to receive them made the long journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, then by boat to Tsuruga (which, coincidentally, was the city where my cousin grew up with his adoptive family).

For his courageous act of civil disobedience, Sugihara-san was demoted and worked simple jobs in obscurity until the late 1960s when one of his beneficiaries finally tracked him down. For his deeds, he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel in 1985, a year before he died. He is the only Japanese citizen upon whom this honor has been bestowed.

I wanted to see the museum, but I knew it might be difficult. Research revealed no train to Yaotsu. Personal reports indicated there might be a bus, but specific details were not readily available. Once we arrived in Inuyama, my cousins who knew we wanted to make the trip presented us with the details. It would require two train rides and two bus trips to make it to the museum. They prepared maps and scribbled down notes for each leg. Here were the directions:

  1. Take a train from Inuyama to the Shin Kani station
  2. Take a train from Shin Kani to the Akechi Station
  3. Take a bus from Akechi Station to the Yaotsu Family Center
  4. Take a shuttle bus from the Yaotsu Family Center up to the Suighara Museum

Our cousins walked us to the Inuyama train station, then boarded the train with us. I supposed they were going to get us started on our way. My cousin was pretty tired out from previous day’s exertions, so I expected they would head back after they had gotten us onto the second train.


At the Shin Kani station, a group of about 50 grade-school kids, all wearing their yellow caps, were seated on the ground, waiting for the train. They waved at us and said “Hello!” When our train arrived, they boarded too. Although they were in the next car, many of them would peer at us and wave through the car door that separated us.

Our cousins joined us for the second train leg, and it became clear they had decided to make the whole trip. Although Yaotsu is only 30 km away, they had never made the trip and were now interested. It was a beautiful day, and as we got farther from Inuyama (a “farming town” in our cousin’s opinion but still pretty urban in our eyes), houses became smaller and more spread out, and flat, low lands gave way to hills, valleys and rivers.

The sun reflected off the Kiso River and we admired the beautiful scenery. The last stop was the little Akechi Station, and our grade-school travelers exited the train along with us. Our cousins surmised they were visiting the Kani Hana Festa Park to view the flowers and trees.

At our last train stop, we boarded the bus (the only bus we could catch) bound for Yaotsu. A student in uniform (high school?) let us know we should get off at the “Yaotsu Family Center,” the last stop on the route, which we did. Whatever gave it the name “family center” eluded us. It looked like a large parking lot surrounded by various medium-sized buildings, perhaps municipal buildings with a cafe and a small grocery mart that was closed.

Passing through Yaotsu proper, we saw posters and signs with Sugihara-san’s face. Exiting the bus, we saw several beautifully painted taxis with designs of flowers, fireworks, and Sugihara-san. We had a choice to wait for the shuttle bus up to the museum, or take a taxi. We opted for the taxi, and after filling two vehicles, we drove the final curvy and hilly stretch up to the museum.


The museum was instantly recognizable to me from the pictures I’d seen online: It has a large, diamond-shaped wooden lattice above the entrance. Across from the museum was a sculpture that looked like a large pipe organ bathed in the warm sunlight. We purchased our museum passes, which looked like passports, and entered.

No photographs are allowed in the museum. The main halls are two stories tall with natural light from above shining through second-story windows. One passes through a simple labyrinth of partitions and walls, each showing dates and figures to outline Sugihara-san’s life, and the developments in Europe that brought his path and the paths of thousands of Jews together. The exhibits were in three languages: Japanese, English, and Hebrew, and after each section, a tablet computer on a pedestal repeated many of the exhibit items with additional material.

At the far end of the museum was a room made to look like Sugihara-san’s vice-consul desk, complete with a heavily used desk blotter, a large antique telephone, and a bookshelf containing language books. Upstairs, one could view the scenic mountainous countryside as well as look down upon the other museum visitors. I did not perceive any non-Japanese guests apart from our own party, but I did see at least two Buddhist monks or priests making their way through the exhibits.

One story that really struck me was about a little boy in the town of Tsuruga. As the hundreds of poor and hungry Jews arrived at the dock, they didn’t know what to expect. They had escaped Europe and Russia, and were now in a strange new country. A little boy of about five had a box of apples which he offered to the newcomers for free. That small act of kindness moved so many that they never forgot the legend of the “apple boy.”

At the far end of the second floor I found a room the others in my party missed. In it were letters written by Jews who had been saved by Sugihara-san, thanking him, and thanking the museum for honoring this great man. Many had lengthy personal accounts that described the events which led them to Sugihara-san’s desk, as well as their perilous journey afterward.

The letters were in English, Hebrew, Japanese, and Yiddish. The general statistics and pictures from the first floor, though at times horrific, were easier to steel oneself against because of their cold, calculated presentation. These personal accounts, however, struck me. The stories packed an emotional punch to the heart and the stomach.


After exiting the museum, I took a moment to look at the river valley to the southwest. Then my brother and I crossed the street to inspect the sculpture. It is called “Sound Out World Peace ” and is constructed of 160 pipes to represent the 160 member states of the United Nations at the time of its construction. It sits on the grounds of the “Hill of Humanity Park.”

We then went into a nearby building to enjoy some tea and lunch. A couple of our traveling companions went outside to smoke, and after a bit, one of them came in and bid me come outside to lend assistance. Apparently, a lady had driven her little car over the corner of a curb and high centered herself. A small crowd was gathering to look, but no one was taking any action. The driver was beside herself, probably a combination of panic and mortification at her predicament.

The car, freed of the curb, but with a flat tire

We two Americans, both standing at least a head taller and likely outweighing all the natives by at least 50 pounds, took a look at her tiny car. One idea was to dead lift it off the curb, but two of us could not do that. I fetched my brother, and after some discussion, decided it would be best for her to put the car in reverse, and with our assistance, we were able to help lift the front over the curb and free the car.

That was easily done, to everyone’s relief, but now it was clear that the accident had caused her front right tire to go flat. We motioned her to drive the car forward into a parking spot, and as she did, we heard a rhythmic “pssss!” sound as additional air was squeezed from her tire. In short order we located her spare (even tinier than her already small standard tires), her jack, and the requisite wrenches.

The three Americans quickly jacked up her car, removed the flat, installed the spare, and tightened the lug nuts. Once done, we got applause from all the onlookers and she bowed deeply and repeatedly thanked us for the help. With a suggestion that she drive really slowly down the mountain and get it fixed, she quickly agreed, and promptly left.

We felt good having lent our help, and I remarked it felt very appropriate that we, three visitors to this country, should do something good, something helpful to further international respect and gratitude just steps away from the Sugihara Museum.

We took the shuttle bus from the museum back down to the Yaotsu Family Center (instead of the colorful taxis), and from there repeated our travel legs in reverse back to Inuyama. At Akechi, the same group of schoolchildren we had encountered in the morning had gathered for their return trip. My cousin and I walked up to them, and I explained in my severely limited Japanese that I was an American (eliciting a big “ehhhhh?!” of wonder from the kids). I said further, pointing to my cousin and I, that the two of use were “itoko” (“cousins”). That got them really excited.

Then, with some encouragement from their teachers and chaperones, they sang out “Hello!” and waved at us, delighted when we waved back. This continued on the train ride back to Shin Kani, and when we went our separate ways they sang out “bye-bye!” and “see you!” — offering upraised palms for a high five.

It was a beautiful day trip, filled with natural beauty, the joy and innocence of schoolchildren, the inspiration of a single, courageous man, and our own small helpful good deed. Chiune Sugihara provides us an example: a reminder of what a powerful impact a single person may have. There is so much need and opportunity for even small deeds to have tremendous impacts today. May his story inspire others to act with courage and compassion.

Timely Trains

Summary: Japanese trains are fast, frequent, efficient, and punctual. This post explores just how punctual and how they pull it off.

Getting around Japan is easy without a car. An extensive network of high-speed trains, commuter trains, local trains, and subways will meet most visitors’ travel needs. Every time I come to Japan I marvel at the efficiency, timeliness, and frequency of these trains. If you miss your train, another is likely to come within 5 to 15 minutes.


Some of the places we stayed were within a block or two of the trains, and although we heard the clickity-clack of wheels on tracks and sometimes the musical tones played at each station, I never heard a train horn or whistle; something you hear, it seems, a mile or more away from trains in the US.

Note the safety wall on the right side and the short fence on the left side

I suppose the fact that (it appears) all the rail lines are barricaded their entire length, minimizes the need to warn the lost or confused pedestrian, child, or cyclist. Even railroad crossings for pedestrians or bike paths have their own gates that close whenever a train approaches. Given the frequency of the trains, investment in all these safety fences and crossing gates makes sense.

I got to see just how precise even a slower, local train is in Japan. Riding a local train from Inuyama back to Nagoya, my brother and I found ourselves in the first coach of the train, standing right behind the engineer. His simple dashboard had various gauges and meters as well as a large handlebar throttle which supplied power as well as applied the brakes.

Bus driver checking his mirrors

At every stop, he went through a graceful, consistent choreographed series of hand gestures with his white-gloved hands. After watching for some time, I was able to figure out what he was doing. (This gestural dance, though much more complex, reminded me of one I’d observed last year performed by a city bus driver).

Timetable and clock

In the upper left corner he had a tiny clipboard with a clock. I figured out that this was his station list and timetable. Next to each entry were two times, which turned out to be the arrival and departure times for each station. A little red horizontal marker indicated the current station, and was manually slid down a row as he departed from each stop. Here was his basic sequence:

  1. As the time neared for departure, he’d point at the clipboard, then at the clock, double-checking the time.
  2. Upon receiving an all-clear message from the station (either a blown whistle from a station guard or an announcement over the PA), he’d pull the throttle handlebar toward himself to apply power to the wheels and the train would pull away.
  3. Noting the speed limit posted on poles beside the track, he removed power before reaching maximum allowable speed, and the train, moving on inertia alone reached and stayed within a couple kilometers per hour of the speed (usually between 70 and 100 kph).
  4. As semaphores (signal lights) came into distant view, he’d point at each, verifying they were green for “go.”
  5. He never tapped the foot pedal to sound his horn except to alert rail workers alongside the tracks.
  6. As he neared a station, he’d point to his schedule, point to the clock, and push the handlebars forward with both hands to apply the brakes and slow the train down to a stop at the next station.
  7. While stopped at the station, he’d slide the red marker down a step and point to the departure time and the clock.

At first I assumed he was arriving and departing by the minute, but on closer inspection, I saw that seconds were indicated on his timetable. On the clipboard featured above, you can see the arrival time is 44 minutes, 20 seconds, with departure at 44 minutes, 50 seconds. In general, he arrived and departed within *10 seconds* of his timetable’s listing.

I assume this was one of the more manual and primitive configurations for a train engineer. Indeed, there were some local trains and subways where the automatic doors remained closed to allow the engineer to back up the train a few inches before they opened.

I’m certain the faster trains, especially the Shinkansen, rely on sophisticated computer and messaging systems to keep them on time and stop within the tight, required tolerances. Perhaps there is little human intervention beyond having extra sets of eyes on everything.

Regardless, in comparison to what I’m used to at home, where trains can run minutes or even hours late, a manually operated train that stays within seconds of its schedule is really a marvel.

Autumn Colors

Summary: Our quest to enjoy autumn colors in Japan is a success.

The last time I traveled to Japan, I came in April and hit the peak of the cherry blossoms. This time, we hoped to catch the autumn colors. Our Japanese friends advised us coming in November would be ideal.

The first several days in Japan I spied only lone trees that had turned and worried the full colors wouldn’t present until after we left Japan. But when we arrived in Kyoto, Ishiyama, and subsequent destinations, we were rewarded with many beautiful fall colors.

Here is a selection of pictures featuring the maple, cherry, and ginko trees we saw in full autumn splendor.

Bookstore Talk

Summary: Discussing WWII Japanese American internment with an all-Japanese audience sparks lively discussion and fosters new friendship.

日本語のための (for a Japanese transcription of mom’s talk, click here)

Before our trip, one of our good friends who lives between Osaka and Kyoto asked us if Mom would be interested and willing to speak to a book club about her family’s wartime experience. Mom has given talks about World War II, the Japanese-American internment, anti-Japanese racism, etc., for decades, and I have assisted her with several recent talks. (A YouTube video of a talk she gave in February 2016 can be found here). But she’s never spoken publicly in Japanese, or to a strictly Japanese audience. Mom and I were both very interested and readily agreed.

After spending some time sightseeing, shopping, and navigating the crowds in Osaka, we took a train to our friend’s apartment in Minase, which is partway between Kyoto and Osaka. The bookstore is literally under the Minase train station of the Hankyu Railway.

In fact, as you exit the station turnstiles, if you were to walk straight forward, you’d bump into the business next door to the bookseller, which is an Indian curry restaurant. Every time a train passed overhead, the floors and walls would shake, which reminded me of scenes from the Woody Allen movie “Play It Again, Sam,” where the main character’s childhood home is located under a roller coaster that shakes every time the ride passes over.

Upon meeting the soft-spoken bookstore manager, I automatically bowed low, and said “Konnichiwa. Ogenki desuka?” (“Hello. how are you?”) He bowed in return, and said something quietly to my friend. She said to me, “He asked me how friends greet in the US, and I told him they usually hug … I think he would like to hug!”

_dsc8713This request caught me off guard, but delighted me. Physical touch is rare in Japan. You might see schoolchildren holding hands, or parent and child holding hands, but you don’t see couples — even young couples — hug or hold hands in public, and certainly not kiss.

One evening in busy Tokyo I saw a young couple meet and the woman barely touched the elbow of her partner. That was it. Our friends who have been to the US will welcome a hug, sometimes even initiate one. Most of the time, if I hug a man, he will stiffly and awkwardly receive it, but that’s about it.

As a person who likes to hug, I certainly missed regular embraces during my time in Japan. So being asked, even indirectly, to hug, was all the invitation I needed. I hugged the store manager and he hugged back. It was an unexpected and touching moment, and boded well for the upcoming talk.

We entered the tiny little bookstore and the manager moved some smaller shelves around. A skilled friend had constructed small shelves that could be disassembled and converted into small stools, and after a while, a space appeared for a dozen or more people to sit. A piano tucked into a corner beckoned, and I was invited to play. I played a few songs from memory, struggling to remember and concentrate while people gathered.

img_20161112_192446361Our friend introduced my Mom and me to a long-time friend of hers who is an English teacher. The new friend offered to help translate for me, for which I was grateful. After a brief introduction, Mom stood up and began to speak. Our friend had printed out a dozen or more slides which I held high as Mom spoke. Although I couldn’t understand most of the Japanese she was saying, I knew her presentation well enough that a single recognizable word or name helped me to follow along, as well as the “next slide” command.

In the audience of about 15 to 20, maybe three older gentlemen had any idea of the Japanese-American internment in the U.S. during the war. One had lived in Paris for some time, and I gathered another had resided in the U.S. The others who had never left Japan, I believe, were learning about this history for the first time.

img_20161112_193926962After speaking about an hour, Mom stopped and invited questions. I had previously told our friend to encourage people to ask any question; no question was off limits or taboo. My concern was that etiquette and respect might inhibit the curious and/or difficult questions. She assured us that this book club was full of inquisitive people, but she repeated our invitation for any question after Mom had completed her talk.

And the questions did come. People asked about how the announcement to leave home for “camp” was made, where my uncles served, how my grandparents felt about the persecution, and if anti-Japanese racism still exists. Discussion turned to the present day. The gentleman who had lived in Paris many years talked about nationalism there and policies developed out of fear of terrorism.

Then came the inevitable question about the current U.S. presidential campaign and the recent election. Were we not shocked by the outcome, and what about some of the rhetoric during the campaign which seemed to justify some of the fears of immigrants and posited solutions not unlike the registration and rounding up of Japanese-Americans 70 years ago?

After hearing the translation of the question, I looked at Mom and asked if she wanted to answer or allow me to respond. She gave me the go-ahead. I took a deep breath and answered that yes, we were both shocked by the election results and shared many of the concerns our Japanese hosts and guests were expressing.

But, I offered, there were several points I wanted to make to quell at least some concerns:

    1. In American elections, it is common for rhetoric during campaigns to veer to the extreme. Promises are made that are not kept, fiery rhetoric dies down after one is elected, and policies generally shift more to the center.
    2. If one looks at the past history for the president-elect, it is much more corporate-centrist than what he campaigned on. I suggested that past action is a better predictor of future action than words.
    3. From what I had read, only 53% of eligible voters voted. So just 26% of the voters actively supported the president-elect. The nearly half of eligible voters who stayed home do not, I believe, actively support the president-elect or they would have voted. And more people voted for the losing candidate than the winner. So it is not correct, in my opinion, to say that half of Americans support the president-elect and half do not.
    4. Of those who did vote, more voted for the losing candidate than the president-elect. (I explained that this is a product of our confusing electoral college and that this has happened before, most recently when George W. Bush was elected). This shows that less than half of the voters support the president-elect.
    5. In this election, both leading candidates had higher negative scores than any previous front-runners in my memory. I think it is safe to say that many more votes were cast against the other candidate rather than in support of one’s chosen candidate. This suggests weakness in the support of the president-elect.

None of these reasons mean we should not scrutinize the president-elect’s statements or actions moving forward. But I wanted to limit unnecessary fear with some realism and facts. Our Japanese guests seemed at least partially relieved by my lengthy response.

After the talk, the bookstore closed and several of the attendees and bookstore employees joined us for a late post-talk dinner next door at the Indian curry restaurant. The restaurant owner spoke English, German, and a little Japanese, so I enjoyed speaking a little with him, and his food was delicious.

A couple women asked Mom if they could buy copies of her book. She had brought a few of her last copies, which she signed and gave them at no charge. They were surprised by the gift, and one of them came by my friend’s apartment with handwritten notes in English and gifts for both Mom and me to express gratitude and friendship.

When it was time to say goodbye, we exchanged bows and thanks, and took pictures. My friend quietly told me, “I think he wants another hug,” and I enthusiastically gave the bookstore manager a goodbye embrace.

I was very moved by the experience, grateful for the people’s interest and compassion, and left the experience with ample new evidence to support my firm belief that there is more that we humans share, more that we humans have in common, than what separates us.

Family Shrines

In most Japanese homes, there is a shrine to honor one’s ancestors. It may be small (one foot tall, one foot wide, and half a foot deep), or it may be grand and approach the size of a small wardrobe.

It is usually made of dark wood, sometimes with a black lacquer finish, and with doors that may be closed. Some people say a short prayer to their shrine every day, others practice more significant acts of reverence to their shrine and the ancestors it represents.

_dsc0406I was very happy to see my cousin’s family shrine. He is the oldest of my cousins (being the first-born of my eldest aunt), and I am the youngest (the third and final child of my mother, who was the youngest my grandparents bore). I never knew Ogiisan (grandpa), although he lived in Hood River, Oregon for most of his life, because he died only a year after I was born. (Grandma died a year before I was born.) Grandpa gave my cousin his little shrine, about 60 years ago or more.

So to see and touch it, and see it in active use gave me a another little connection to my grandpa. My cousin opened it and said a little prayer every morning. Inside, he kept a small wallet-sized photo album that included pictures of my grandparents, his mother (whom he never knew), my mother when she was in college and with my oldest brother as an infant (in both pictures she is younger than I am today), and many youthful pictures of my cousins. I was happy to see all these pictures, many of which I’d never seen before.

In Iwata, at the home of the relatives who run a Buddhist temple, the large family shrine was left open and all the omiyage (gifts) we brought were first placed just inside it before they were consumed. I didn’t see them placed there, but walking past the shrine, I saw a little stack of the goodies we had brought, waiting to be consumed later that day or perhaps on the day following.

Family shrine with gifts we brought placed before it.

Space is limited in a Japanese home. Many doors are sliding panels, and rooms are often converted for both daytime and nighttime use. There is seldom clutter, simply because there isn’t room for unnecessary bric-a-brac and tchotchkes.

This is one reason food items make good gifts: They don’t take up valuable space after being presented. But a family shrine and the reverence for one’s ancestors is allowed some precious, permanent space in most homes in Japan.

Unagi Pie

Unagi, as any sushi lover knows, is fresh-water eel. The flesh is placed atop rice, slathered with sauce, and toasted in a small oven. It was my father’s favorite sushi and is also one of mine.

_dsc9834So when our hosts told us they were taking us to an “unagi pie” factory, we were perplexed. How would eel feature in some sort of sweet, baked pastry? Unagi Pie (or “Pai” as it is sometimes spelled on the wrapper) is popular all over Japan.

The factory is in Hamamatsu, and this area is a major source for fresh-water eel. In fact, 19 years ago on my first trip to Japan, I visited an unagi farm, where Quonset huts sheltered big tubs full of growing live eels.

The appetite for unagi in Japan has outstripped production (Japan takes 70% of the all the eel consumed in the world), and Japanese native populations are endangered, which has inspired entrepreneurs from abroad to step in and fill the demand.

We pulled up to the factory, and just inside were attractive young women in pink dresses and hats to welcome us. Walking along a corridor and up some stairs, we soon had a panoramic view of the factory floor.


_dsc9106At first glance, it reminded me of a computer chip manufacturing floor. Workers in bunny suits tended machinery with conveyor belts, robotic arms, and status indicator lights. On closer inspection, one could see the cookies being transported on the belts being brushed with butter by robotic arms, baked, individually wrapped, and packaged into boxes. To my eyes, it looks like half of a heart-shaped palmier, though thinner and more cookie than soft pastry.

After viewing the factory floor from above, we walked on and passed a cafe that served beautiful desserts such as ice cream, gelato, and chestnuts featuring unagi pie and served with ceremonial matcha tea. But was there really eel in it?!?

At the end of the tour was the shop where you could taste samples of the three main flavors: regular, peanut, and V.S.O.P featuring cognac. They tasted good, but was there really eel in it, and why? My cousin was sure there wasn’t eel in the cookies. She was convinced they were simply called unagi pie because of their shape and/or because of the association with the fresh-water eel business of the local area.

One of the pink-clad welcoming ladies approached us, and in excellent English asked us if we had any questions.

“Yes! Is there really eel in these cookies?” I asked?

“Yes,” she replied.

“How long have they been making them?” I ventured further.

“56 years,” she responded.

“And is it unagi flesh in the cookies?” I queried.

“No. The fish bones, fins, and head are dried, ground into a powder, and that is used in the unagi pie,” she answered cheerfully.

No doubt our expressions quickly transformed from wonder to a mixture of horror and disgust, but I suppose she was used to this reaction from Westerners, because she registered no embarrassment or awkwardness.

After verifying we had no further questions, she left us to our shopping. We stood in amazement and confusion. What would possess a person to put fish bones and heads into a cookie?

Thinking about the past, I pictured a booming unagi trade in the eel flesh, and growing piles of discarded tails, fins, bones, and heads. “There must be something we can do with those!” someone must have suggested. But to put them into cookies?

I joked, “just think if a hair dresser thought, ‘what could I do with all this hair? I know, I’ll make cookies!'” But to be fair, the cookies taste great. And the Japanese, having no automatic revulsion to the idea, have embraced unagi pie with vigor: friends from Osaka to Tokyo were quite familiar with and fond of the treat.

And if we look at some of the unpronounceable ingredients in many of our processed foods and did the research to find out where they originated, I suppose we’d be similarly horrified. At least in the case of unagi pie/pai, the ingredient in question is prominently stated in the name.