Hiro, who volunteers as an English-speaking guide in Osaka, Japan, agreed to take my friend Dianne and me around for a day. He then made a mistake: asking what we wanted to do.
"Visit the Maishima Incineration Plant!" I wrote to Hiro in an e-mail.
The Maishima Plant – where more than 300,000 tons of Osaka's waste is processed each year – is a popular attraction and will accept only 300 visitors a day. Hiro, despite efforts worthy of his name, could not wrangle us into that group. So he arranged for us to visit another Osaka waste-processing plant, and then Dianne and I were forced to disclose that we were not actually interested in waste processing. We liked the outside of the Maishima Plant, which was designed by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It looked pretty and carnival-like.
Once our plan had to be discarded, Hiro, Dianne, and I decided we'd go to the more genteel Open-Air Museum of Old Japanese Farm Houses, where 11 traditional houses have been moved from around Japan to an Osaka park.
Hiro picked us up at our hotel at 9 a.m. on a sunny fall day. While we rode the train to Ryokuchi Koen – the park where the museum is – Hiro told us about retiring from his job with a fabric company. His work had taken him all over the world – Beijing, New York, Hong Kong, and Vienna, to name a few places.
Hiro asked about us. I'm not very interesting, but Dianne is. "She's moving to Saudi Arabia in a couple of months," I told him.
It's true: Dianne is moving there to work as a dentist on an oil company compound. Most people think Dianne is foolish for doing this. But Hiro seemed to think it was normal. We really liked Hiro.
The park was perfect. There were bright flowers everywhere, and the leaves were changing colors. A group of older people did tai chi in a circle, and swarms of school kids in matching uniforms hung around holding plastic bags.
"They're collecting these nuts," Hiro said, picking up a little acornlike nut from the ground. He added that the kids would take the nuts home for use as decorations.
As we walked through a wooden gate into the open-air museum, there were more rows of flowers and plenty of trees whose leaves were changing colors.
When we came to the first house – a farmhouse from Kyushu with a thick reed-thatched roof – we went inside. We admired in-floor fireplaces and paper decorations.
The next house was similar, but from a colder climate, so the sides of the house were insulated with thatched reeds. We meandered from house to house, enjoying them and the nature around them.
In front of a grove of trees, Hiro translated the words on a sign: "It is about a red insect. Like a dragonfly. And the writer is saying that seeing the dragonfly makes him feel like he is again a child on his mother's back."
We spied orange fruit on the upper branches of a persimmon tree next to an old Kabuki theater from Kagawa.
Hiro told us that he had loved persimmons when he was a kid. So Dianne and I set about trying to get some of them down. We tugged and jumped and finally gathered three. Hiro polished them with a cloth. Then he took a bite of his and got a surprised, happy, and wistful look on his face.
"It is like I am a child eating persimmons in the fall," he said.
At the next house, a woman said that artists come to sketch the persimmon tree every day, and then when they come back the next day to finish their drawings, they wonder where the persimmons have gone.
The next day, Dianne and I went to a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) just outside Osaka. At night when it was cold, we sat in an outdoor hot pool underneath a tree that shouldn't have been blooming, but was.
When we get older and move on with our lives, I thought, I'll be nostalgic for this.