Late in May of 1976 my little family boarded a plane in San Francisco and spent ten hours flying to Tokyo. Our daughter, then thirteen months of age, was busy talking to anyone who would listen while her father and I took turns walking her up and down the aisle. Once we finally arrived in Japan my husband led us through all of the required slots until we, with our luggage were on a curb waiting to get a taxi when I realized we were short one bag. Kosuke went rushing off and returned with the errant bag. It was a great relief because I was sure that in the America the bag would have been stolen the minute we lost track of it.
The taxi carrying one of his cousins arrived to take us to an Aunt and Uncle’s lovely home where after a sumptuous dinner I was allowed the luxury of a Japanese bath which was so remarkably refreshing I was not paying attention to time and the family sent my husband upstairs to be sure I had not fallen asleep in the tub.
The next day we boarded the bullet train which would take us to Kyoto, where the rest of his family lived. Kyoto is exquisitely beautiful and is the home of 2,000 temples, some of which are no bigger than a small booth in a restaurant. The city was spared of bombing during World War II so all of its streets are narrow and reflect ancient history. It was evening by the time the taxi brought us to the home of my in-laws where not only my husband grew up, but so did his father. My father-in-law scooped up the baby from my arms with joy saying he’d waited a long time to meet her. The taxi driver asked me a question which required a simple, yes or hai, but I do not know if it was because of exhaustion, or because my brain was shouting, “You’re in a foreign country, you must speak a foreign language.” Automatically I responded in Slovak, ano.
Most buildings and homes were not far from the edge of the sidewalk or street, some with a tiny space with a small plant or bush, but any bit of ground in which to cultivate anything was behind or in the center courtyard of the homes.
For the balance of his two weeks of vacation time Kosuke and I walked to various tourist attractions including the Moss Temple, and Kiyomizu-dera, the latter had a steady stream of school children walking past the house and up the main street, who came from all over the country, to visit the famous temple.
I wept when Kosuke had to go back to work in California but it did not take very long before I moved from his parents’ home to the other side of town into his eldest of three elder sister’s homes and life there consisted of my going off each day to see some interesting site alone and leaving the baby with eldest sister and returning in the evening, or the three of us would head out for the day for some new adventure. I no longer got car sick in the swaying trams, learned how to ask the driver of buses for my sister-in-law’s neighborhood, and had assorted experiences like the time I got off a bus to go to the Kyoto Museum of Art to find that all of the street signs were written in ideograms and I had no idea what they meant.
The good thing is that most students in the country speak or study English, so when a group of young girls greeted me I asked them for the direction to the museum. Giggling they fended me off saying they could not understand me. I however, am not that easily discouraged, and I persisted, producing the tiny Japanese dictionary Kosuke had given me, until finally they got what I was asking about and pointed me in the right direction. How funny it was to me to arrive at the museum to find they were featuring an exhibition of American Quilts.
Shizue, eldest sister-in-law, had learned one word in English: put. It was a very good word to learn and made things clear, like put shoes there and so on. In Japanese I learned the word tabun, which means maybe, which was pretty useful as well. For the most part we worked out what we needed to say in French. She was good and I had a couple of courses in French in Junior College. If she attempted some English that I could not figure out I would try the Japanese I picked up and then we would laugh and manage to sort it out.
My sister-in-law wanted me to cook American style and we did spend some time looking for spices I normally use at home. However, not all of the things I was accustomed to making were easily accessible and meat was very expensive. At that time stew beef was $13.00 a pound. I have no idea what it might be today. One time when one of the younger nephews was visiting us and the kids were playing ball in her enclosed yard he said he had a taste for soup. Good soup takes long, but I was not above a quick impromptu one in which I diced up a potato, a bit of onion, a rib of celery, added caraway seed and a block of chicken bouillon. Not my mother’s chicken soup, but he sloshed it down.
In about three weeks after Kosuke had gone home, I felt like my life in Kyoto was my new reality. My visa was good for a year and I was busy absorbing the culture and enjoying the family. When we had been there for about three months, Kosuke had become weary of doing for himself and said he wanted me to come home, so we bundled everything up and returned to our old reality in Sunnyvale, California.