A golden bridge between worlds

Lafcadio Hearn, who popularized Japan for Western readers around the turn of the last century, tells of a young Japanese returning to his country from his studies in Europe. As his boat approaches Yokohama, the student rushes to the deck and strains for a glimpse of Mount Fuji. But however hard he tries, the sacred mountain is nowhere to be seen.

"Higher, look higher, young man," an older passenger advises him. He does so, and there, majestic above the clouds, he finds the familiar, perfect cone.

I had a similar experience when I first arrived in the United States from Japan, half a century ago. I tingled with excitement, for finally I was about to fulfill my dream. I was going to America!

For most civilians, travel across the Pacific in those days was still by sea. I took the train from Tokyo to Yokohama, and there boarded a freighter, the California Bear. I was one of just eight passengers. My father, who had made his own round-the-world voyage 20 years earlier, saw me off.

Twelve days later, we were off the California coast. John, the generous-hearted steward, woke me that morning humming "California, Here I Come." Our ship was going to pass directly under the Golden Gate Bridge, and like Lafcadio Hearn's student, I ran outside to see the bridge. But morning mists swirled around and I could see nothing.

"You're looking too low," said John. "Lift your eyes higher." Even so, at first I could not penetrate the fog. But as I kept raising my gaze in accordance with John's instructions, suddenly I caught my breath. There, floating ethereally above the mist, was the great orange suspension bridge that had greeted so many Asian immigrants and so many thousands of US servicemen returning from the far side of the Pacific Ocean in war and in peace.

Since then, I have traveled more times than I can count between Japan and America, but always by air. Once, the pilot invited me to the cockpit as our plane was passing near snow-clad Mt. McKinley in Alaska. That was certainly a thrilling experience. But it cannot compare with my first view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which has merged in memory with everything that was fresh, lovely, and exhilarating about a land that I now call my own.

There are so many firsts when one comes to a new country. My first artichoke, which I had no idea how to eat. My first waffles. My first porterhouse steak. Images of food seem to dominate, perhaps because of having gone through a long period of wartime deprivation. But there are other images as well, beginning with several firsts experienced aboard that eye-opening voyage to America.

For instance, my first refrigerator raid (another food image!). I was introduced to this practice by my cabin-mate, Ken. He was a Nisei (the second generation of Japanese to call America home) from San Francisco and had been looking into business opportunities in Japan. John, the steward, stocked a refrigerator in the pantry with a wide variety of soft drinks plus bread and all the ingredients for a Dagwood sandwich. After dinner, there was often a movie. After the movie, Ken would wink at me and then head straight for the refrigerator, with me in tow. He would fix us some fanciful combination of turkey, salami, lettuce, and cheese. Today, I wonder how I ever managed to gulp it all down. But in those days, the sensation was Sybaritic and heavenly.

A more exotic first was the first wedding I attended. This was a new experience, not only for me, but also for the captain and his whole crew. How often does a workhorse freighter become the venue for the exchange of marriage vows? Two of our passengers were Americans who had fallen in love with each other while working in Japan. Their contracts completed, they were about to leave Japan when they had a brilliant idea. Why not a romantic shipboard wedding?

They came aboard with a wedding cake and all the other trimmings. Ships' captains are authorized to conduct weddings.

But our captain, a stout and genial officer who had commanded only freighters for his entire career, had never presided over such an event. He was understandably nervous. The crew was delighted over this break in their humdrum daily routine.

The morning of the wedding dawned bright and clear. But there was a stiff breeze. The ship, lacking the stabilizers that a passenger liner would have, bucked the waves like a horse at a slow gallop. The bride had not acquired her sea legs, and the rumor spread that the great event might have to be postponed. Then the captain changed the ship's course – at least for the duration of the ceremony – so that the waves would be less of a problem.

Amid the cheers of the crew, the bride appeared, somewhat pale, in a pearl-white wedding dress. A creaky portable Victrola was cranked up and played Wagner's "Wedding March." The couple exchanged rings, and the captain – resplendent in his dress uniform – duly pronounced them husband and wife. The crew cheered again, and we applauded. But just as we did so, the bride clapped her hand to her mouth and went rushing back to her room.

Within a day or so, however, the new couple could be seen walking up and down all over the ship, exclaiming with the rest of us over the sightings of flying fish and whales, and quite obviously enjoying each other's company.

And so a voyage that had begun with the auspicious coming together of a man and a woman ended with the injunction to "look higher," and the Golden Gate's soaring symbolism of the coming together of nations.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.