from Sandy Needham

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Yokohama Dispatch

November 08, 2006

It is wonderful to be back in Japan after 19 years (we lived here for 14 months when Elise was 3 and Jake, 1). It is fascinating to note changes alongside the enduring order, courtesy, and unequalled traditional beauty. The ever-amazing train system enables us (or me, during Newton's busy days) to get anywhere easily. Even in the outlying stations where the train charts are not translated, there is always someone willing to help you figure out the direction or the amount for the ticket machines.

-More people speak English! Before, we found that even though everyone studied English in school, they learned to read and write, not to speak it. Now, many will hesitate when asked and say they don't speak English, or speak it very little, then proceed to help you with perfectly passable English!
-More people say "no" to a question when "no" is the answer. In the past, it was considered impolite to say no, so we encountered many problems regarding the vagueness of situations. This time, you ask if they have decaf espresso, for example, and they bow with their forearms in an "X" and say no. It makes life much simpler!
-When I first saw the young people upon arriving here this time, I thought, 'what a scruffy lot, but at least there is evidence of more self expression in such a conforming society.' Alas, 10 days into our stay I must report that nearly ALL the young people have the SAME scruffy look! About 90% of the young, male and female, (and many of the older women) in the cities have dyed their hair varying depths of reddish-brown... in the ONE cut that the young and not-so-young women share. This is the shaped, sculpted cut that thins out at the ends and leaves long straight strands sticking out. The young women's fashion at the moment consists of layers of unlikely combinations, topped off by the absolutely de rigueur jean jacket - also worn by many middle-aged women.
-The quality fabrics have been replaced by much cheaper goods, with the exception of some older women who still insist on exquisite quality and line. Besides the always breathtaking view of a female in a kimono, I consider the workmen the best-dressed in Japan at the moment, with their lovely knotted kerchiefs and their wonderful sculptural pants, all ballooned out at the ankle and stuffed into beautiful rubber work boots - a shape worthy of a wood-block print!
-The school children still have their respective hats color-coded by class and their uniforms, but some of the backpacks don't match now. This was unheard of in '88!
-It is more common to see fathers with their children on the weekends.
-There are more escalators at the train stations (3-year-old Elise and I with 25-pound Jake had to traipse up and down stairs at all 3 stations it took to get to preschool).

Newton was meeting with his company's distributors in Yokohama, so we stayed there and I caught the train to Tokyo for my chance to wander. I loved visiting the 'kitchen town' district in Tokyo, where an entire avenue offers all things for the kitchen and restaurant supply, including shops with the plastic food models displayed in front of Japanese restaurants! I bought 4 red bowls and a turquoise colander for my new kitchen (yeah - I know - hard to pack, but worth it!). The district is an older neighborhood with many traditional buildings, always a sight I love.

I had a rather miserable day in blustery, rainy weather, finding our apartment building from the '80's in the Kamikitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo. I was determined to look up our landlord to see if he had the new address of my neighbor, Chisayo, who helped us so much when we lived here. She sent me some beautiful bags she had made from a new address around 10 years ago, but when I tried to send presents back, I realized I had lost the new address. I sent them to the old one, hoping they'd be forwarded, but they came back. I have been hoping to find her ever since, so made this effort. I didn't remember her husband's first name, and her last name -Kitamura - is very common, so I hoped the landlord would know. I was underdressed for the cold, wet winds and completely lost when I got off the train! With some help and the sudden appearance of the little park where I used to play with the kids, I found the place. The landlord's little fishery is now a parking lot, and the landlord is no longer there. Chisayo, I haven't forgotten you.

The rest of the days were warm and sunny, in the '70's. I saw an exquisite life-size replica of an Edo period street at the Museum of Housing and Living, and the lovely ukyo-i wood block print museum in the fashionable Harajuku neighborhood, where Elise’s old preschool was located. Mostly I just walked and walked.

-The 'set-your-watch' timing of the trains
-The street panorama from the pedestrian overpasses
-Japanese maples, bonsai trees, and all manner of plants that look like they just stepped out of a painted screen
-The way a Japanese person will accompany you to the destination to which you are asking directions
-The unrelenting beauty of tatami mats and shoji screens
-Japanese food

-The shrill, infantile female voices welcoming EVERY person that walks in or passes by a store or restaurant
-The 'set' plates for meals, so if you want two eggs instead of one, or if you want that chocolate mousse that you've been eyeing in the case the whole meal, you CAN'T have them because they are not part of your set
-The insipid "jingles" that play on each train line to indicate that the doors will be closing soon
-Over-bowing. This tends to be older Japanese or hotel and restaurant help (or the dreaded part at the end of Newton's business meetings)
-Japanese food after 9 days

Yep...there will be MORE soon!


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