We step inside Japan, at last

As our son's sojournings in Japan became lengthier - a junior year abroad, then several semesters as itinerant teacher and waiter, then a job with a corporation - we, his respectful parents, annually packed our bags, canceled our newspapers, and flew westward into the East.

Kyoto was our base during the student year. Pampered like potentates in a hotel with Western beds, we made our meditative way down Philosopher's Walk; we gasped at the golden Kinkaku-ji Temple; and, in the outdoor market, we resisted the impulse to plunge our hands into buckets of sardines to see if their silver would rub off on us.

We memorized a few Japanese phrases. My husband learned to recognize some characters.

When our son began to wander, we wandered, too - to Osaka, Hiroshima, and Okoyama, where we bathed in a warm spring of an inn. At that same inn, I put my eye to the imperfectly closed doors of a function room and saw two young people take their marriage vows. They wore Western clothing, but they were surrounded by silk kimonos.

More recently, Tokyo was our home-away-from-home - vast and gray, its highways looping into the air like noodles. We mingled with "salarymen" in dark suits and white shirts. We practiced our Japanese on helpless vendors. "Irashaimase!" - a very honorable welcome - chirped young women in cafes.

On a bench beside the Sumida River, we licked swirls of ice cream the color of a plum. Perhaps this was the famous sweet-potato flavor? We had grown too indirect to ask.

On other benches lay Tokyo's homeless. Their makeshift cardboard shelters were heartbreakingly neat - everything in its place, just like the drawers in "capsule" hotels.

We read haiku, strict as a villanelle, compressed as a tablet. We learned to wait patiently in front of an ancient panel in a museum until the present dissolved. Then we'd softly enter the scene, as if we, too, were goateed noblemen approaching the castle on caparisoned horses. And - oh! - the shrines. And - ah! - the Buddhas.

In short, we became aficionados of the exotic Japan. We were latter-day Pinkertons, in love with Madame Butterfly, but not committed to her.

ALL that has changed. Our boy has gotten married. His high-spirited bride has nothing in common with Madame Butterfly except beauty and birthplace. She considerately speaks English with us, but sometimes she and he drop briefly into her language - lilting words, the music of love.

And so our latest trip to Tokyo included no sociological assessment of the salary penguins or the irashaimase songbirds or the cardboard homes of the unfortunate. There were no strolls into museums or gardens. Instead, we hurtled off to the throbbing area of discount stores, a 21st-century bazaar, cash only, please, even for this refrigerator you're buying the young marrieds.

After unburdening ourselves of all our paper yen - coins of confusing denominations still jangled weakly in our pockets - we traveled on a suburban line to the home of our daughter-in-law's parents. Despite our limitations in their tongue and theirs in ours, we all managed to indicate enormous satisfaction with each others' offspring.

My daughter-in-law's mother does her errands on a bicycle, her tweed skirt hiked above her knees. What good fortune to be linked to a woman of my own unceremonious sort.

My daughter-in-law's father showed us how to rise from a meal on the floor: You lean backward against your heels and command your thighs to lift you. In one fluid motion he was on his feet.

I tried the maneuver, lost my balance, and fell upon the low table, upsetting the leftover rice.

We visited the young couple in their compact apartment. Everything fits within something smaller than itself. The bed rolls up and stands like a mummy in a narrow closet. Appliances collapse into their own innards.

The bride deftly prepared lunch: cabbage stuffed with ground meat - not so different from my grandmother's specialty.

Afterward, we all explored the neighborhood: apartment buildings, pachinko palaces, and useful stores. We bought groceries and flowers. The shopkeepers recognized the newlyweds.

Someday I hope they'll recognize me. On future trips I'll be hanging out in this packed and undistinguished section of Tokyo. I'll sit on that bench, I'll walk in that park. My grammar will improve: No longer will I let an adverb droop from the end of a sentence like an untied sash. I'll get to know the zoo.

And I will give up trying to distinguish the woodblocks of Katsushika Hokusai from those of Ando Hiroshige. It's more important to remember the location of the 24-hour pharmacy.

When I glide from the jet, when I speed underground toward the city, I'll be carrying my entire wardrobe in a pouch tied to my wrist. I'll make my confident way into the Kasai neighborhood of Tokyo as if into one of those famous panels.

Maybe I'll even get the coins straight. But if not, the grandchildren, taught early not to snicker, will do it for me.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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