Isa’s Reflections on Japan#2: 5-20-10

Dear Supporters: Thanks again for your interest in our recent activities in Japan. Here’s my post about the last few days in Japan:

After the exhausting travel from Takamatsu on May 18, in Sendai I slept straight through for the first time. Jetlag is over, and it’s almost time to go home! Well, we all got up early and enjoyed a fabulous Japanese feast in the hotel.  We then got ambitious and decided to take the train to Matsushima, one of the 3 most beautiful scenic areas in Japan. Thank God for the Japan Rail Pass! This is a great deal for those exploring all parts of Japan! Well, it was grey but not cold; and we were determined to see this famous place despite having only a few hours. 

Matsushima is basically a coastal tourist town that opens up to a beautiful bay speckled with islands. It is a national treasure. We didn’t have time to take any ferries to tour the area; but the town has three islands so close to the shore that red bridges were build to attach to them. There were hiking trails and forested woods, and it felt great to breathe the deep sea air. People were digging for clam on the beach. There were Japanese-style pine trees covering the islands along with azaleas and camelias in bloom, as well as  lupine, irises and even some wisteria. We  were in Japan at the best time! We walked briskly from island to island. Mama bought a salted cucumber on a stick and ate it like a popsicle. So cute! Could American kids ever learn to love cucumbers instead of Big Sticks?

Poor Mom was dragging behind her rushing daughters who were saying , “The train leaves at 11:04, but let’s see that island first! And that! And that!” We often get posssessed like this when we want to sightsee…. Anyway, this area was famous for a feudal lord Date (pronounced Da—te) Masamune, who was extremely powerful in this region and a great threat to the southern Central leaders of Japan. Date build many temples and shrines. He only had one eye and wore armor and a mask often. Apparently his mask was used as the model for Darth Vader’s mask in Star Wars.  He is buried in Sendai.

We rushed back to the hotel to collapse a bit and freshen up. It became clear at the last minute that we had somehow lost the taxi voucher(how embarrassing), and we got late. Being late in Japan is a gross violation of decency… woops. We’re American! And get this, the taxi driver was so kind, he dropped us off without us paying, saying if we find the voucher we can give it to him. And that he’d pick us up at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University late after the event. Never in America!!!

We arrived to the familiar settings of Sendai’s private college. It was not a horrendous typhoon like it had been in October 2009. We were escorted to a lovely meeting room where we met our friends Rumiko, Keiko and Ms. Adachi. We were treated to the most beautiful colorful and exquisite bento box. Over lunch, we caught up on the events of the day, but inevitably, the conversation veered towards CF and how to take enzymes, how to clean nebulizers, etc.

Soon it was rehearsal time and I broke out my bagpipes, which had been stuffed in my heavy suitcase for a week. We met Mr Sakakibara, a renowned Sendai Jazz musician, who is part of a quartet called “Happy Toco”. Mr Sakakibara was educated at Berkelee School of Music in Boston and spoke English fluently. I played “Amazing Grace,” which included a rendition written by him— but my amateur sound probably ruined the professional tone of his band, with it’s violin, bass, and drums.  And the Miyagi Chorus sang a verse of Amazing Grace as well. It was heavenly. Unfortunately, I had some technical difficulties with my drones and pipe, so I don’t think I sounded very good.

Then we practiced our interview. Ana and I got flustered with our Japanese and Mom blurted out, “If you suck, speak English”. Yep, that says it all. I think Sakakibara-san must’ve wondered why we got all these accolades when we could hardly say anything coherent. So off stage we went and practiced, practiced, practiced.  I was extremely stressed with my horribly sounding pipes and tried many different reeds. I played them flat to match the Jazz band. I asked myself why I got myself into this stressful embarrassing situation since I wasn’t a professional musician.

As we prepared, we met new faces again. My friend Reri, a respiratory therapist here in the Bay Area, is from Sendai, and her mother greeted us kindly. Also my father’s physics colleague works at Tohoku University in Sendai, and he attended. We met an Englishman whose sister had CF and was transplanted in English 10 years ago, who had just finished the London Marathon!  we met Mr Ambe, the singer/songwriter who performed in October 2009 for the first CF Charity Concert. And then we met several families of CF kids- one came from kagoshima (southernmost corner of Japan), and one came from Takamatsu. We met one CF mom who lost her son to CF in 2001, when he was only 12 years old. What courage to come here! There were so many warm and supportive people to meet, yet there was also great stress preparing for our speech, our reading and my bagpipes.

The concert unfolded into a great success. It opened with Happy Toco’s music, which was a combination of Jazz and classical together. They showed the CF video about the kids in Japan who are struggling. Then there was a 20 minute ‘talk show’ where Sakakibara-san interviewed my mom, Ana, me and Adachi-san in Japanese. Out of our mouths came coherent, simple but honest answers. My mother spoke eloquently, and so did Adachi-san. It was much better than the practice. About 200 people were in the audience. We also did a reading. I read a small part of the English “Power of Two” book, and Mom read the Japanese version. Then Ana read an intense exerpt from The Miracle chapter, of my receiving a transplant. Mom read the same in Japanese. The audience was visibly moved. Then after many more songs, it was time for bagpipes. I played ‘Highland Cathedral’ together with Happy Toco, and then a beautiful creation of Amazing Grace. First the band played, then the chorus, then the bagpipes, then we all played together. I looked up at the ceiling as I was blowing. I thanked God for this glorious moment.  It was so unreal to me. Here I was, speaking and traveling in another country, playing my bagpipes, breathing so easily and living totally normally. I closed my eyes and gave Praise.

The concert ended with an hour or so of mingling and bows and words of thanks. We bought a few souvenirs from the craft booth that raised money for CF. Also we gathered with the 5 CF families, including 2 CF infants age 2 and 3 who were together. In America, people would freak out if CF kids were near each other. Both did not culture MRSA, nor were they coughing, nor did they touch each other. It was okay, in my opinion. It was adoreable, because the 2 year old who has been so incredibly sick, is still not able to walk. He scoots around with his arms. He’d scoot right up to the little 3 year old with CF, and just stare at her, without touching. Just staring. Like he knew her, or recognized something inside of her that he understood. It was the first time in Japanese history that 5 families have come together, plus us from America, plus the British man from London, to BE a CF community! I felt very, very pleased.

Needless to say, we had long drawn out goodbyes and wished there was more time. Our next goal when we return is to have a mini-educational event with these families. At the end of the evening, we reconnected with our loyal taxi driver, and went back to the airport. I hadn’t eaten dinner, so I snacked on leftovers. I couldn’t sleep because I was so high.

We woke early on Thursday May 20 to rush to breakfast, again enjoying a formal Japanese meal of okayu, various salted, pickled vegetables, tiny portions of egg and fish, and other unusual unidentifiable foods. It was delicious but probably only about 300 calories! We met Ms Adachi and Rumiko in the lobby at 8:30am, to a cacophony of cheerful greetings of joy and affection. The back story: we had asked our publisher to ship 25 Japanese books to Sendai for our own purchase (so we wouldn’t have to lug them all over Japan; they cost $32 in the USA), but apparently Adachi-san didn’t know those books were for us. He ended up selling them all! That’s good, right? They sold out at the concert! So Ms Adachi came to give us the money she owed us, since I had paid for the books already. Mom and I wanted to donate some of the money back to the Committee to Enable CF Treatment, but Ms Adachi totally freaked out. She backed out and acted like she was going to leave, if we tried to force the money on her. It’s such a different style of “fundraising” than in the US. Hells’ bells, if someone wanted to donate to a cause like this, any non-profit would gladly take the money! So she wouldn’t accept it and we’ll have to figure out another way to support the CF efforts. Since there’s no online donation system, it is a bit tricky. Japan has a long way to go for fundraising…

 Well, after loving goodbyes, we packed up and checked out of the hotel. In the lobby there were rows of about 50 identical suitcases, all with the word “Giants” printed on them. Very cool! The Tokyo Giants must be playing the Sendai baseball team; and the players were staying at our hotel!

 Anyway, we left to catch the 10:26 Bullet train (after shopping for 15 minutes and buying as many red bean manju as possible). Just as the train was approaching, I splurged and bought 3 colorful, artsy bento boxes with the most amazing authentic Sendai foods inside! I had just eaten breakfast, but my mouth watered.

 In the Shinkansen, mom passed out and Ana and I gazed out the window. My body was totally lethargic with fatigue but I was so immensely happy. As I started to doze off, a lady tugged at my shoulder. I opened my eyes and this middle aged women was staring at me with wide eyes and a stunned look on her face. I greeted her as if I knew her (sometimes you have to do that), and asked if she was at the concert last night. She gave me a blank stare. She asked if we were okay, because of our masks. We wondered if she knew us from our book, or media etc. But it turns out she was just very concerned because she saw us looking lost in the train station and also looking kind of sick with masks on. She presented Ana and me with a cute goldfish keychain that she brought from her hometown of Aomori (northern Japan). It was such a bizarre interaction. She was a total stranger, but just randomly took notice of us and gave us this gift. These are the amazing charms of Japanese people; they are so incredibly nice and generous, even if you don’t know them. She tried to speak some English to us, and then some German too; so I think she was just fascinated by us being foreigners. Ana gave her our card and of course we told her why we’re wearing a mask. She continued to have this spaced out, stunned look on her face. Anyway, this random stranger really touched me; perhaps she was connected to us in some unknown way. Her kindness made me sad to leave Japan.

 After a nice ride to Tokyo, we dashed out of the Shinkansen and wandered at high pace through the chaotic, busy and fast-paced tunnels of Tokyo Station. People in Japan walk so fast, in all different directions, and everyone wears black! It’s a sea of busy ants underground. We tugged our heavy suitcases through the maze of humans. We panicked to try to find the Narita Airport Express, and luckily the organized Tokyo train station (and English signs!) made it incredibly easy. We caught our train in no time, and wished we had more time to shop…. Forty easy minutes on the Narita Express train, while devouring our scrumptious Sendai bento boxes (though also about 400 calories!), and chatting with an American tourist, we arrived at Narita.

 We killed the next few hours by aimlessly shopping and using up the bulk of our loose change and cash. We bought as many boxes of red bean manju and castella cake that our bags could carry. The expiration dates imposed major challenges, as we wanted to give these items to our friends. I could eat them all myself, of course! I wanted to get so many friends gifts, but was so limited by time, cost and of course my pickiness.

 Mama’s flight left earlier than ours, and we embraced her goodbye with an extreme love and gratitude for having a mother like ours. She has been so supportive of our speaking tours, even if we dragged her around from one event after another. I remember she was initially hesitant to go on these tours with us because she didn’t want to appear to be a “oyabaka” or ‘stupid mother’, just following us around… But in fact, she has been a vehicle for patient advocacy, CF awareness and organ donation awareness with her fluency and professional background, so the Japanese people listen to and hear her. I feel so grateful that Mama, Ana and I are all healthy enough to go on these missions to influence Japan. It aches me when Rumiko, who lost her daughter to CF said, “You are so lucky you can share this time with your mother.”

 I’m proud of my mom just like she’s proud of us. She speaks up and says what she wants, in her charming way, and she challenges the Japanese mindset with little hesitation. Most importantly, she gave the CF mothers in Japan so much hope- that inner growth and resilience are the best rewards for being a mother to a CF child. I only wish all CF kids have a chance to feel so bonded with their moms, and to go on adventures like this one with their mothers.

 Mama has had such an influence on us. I told many people that the best thing that happened to me was being born a twin; the next best thing was being born half-Japanese. I’m so thankful my mother taught me to be proud of where I come from; to embrace the language despite the challenges; to expose me to the culture so I can feel comfortable with the Japanese people. 

 After mom left, I greedily enjoyed my last Japanese supper of a bowl of ramen and ice cream anmitsu (it’s to die for), and then boarded the plane to LAX and SFO with a certain level of catatonia. I could not read; I could not finish my blog, I could hardly do anything because I was so depleted. My mind had to relish in the feeling of contentment. Another Japan tour completed. Ana and I were together and healthy. Such a miracle. We are so incredibly blessed. Thank you God.

I left Japan with a higher level of admiration than anytime before. Change is happening and many, many people are working very hard for it. And I felt peace knowing that we’d be back. If God wills it, Ana and I will continue to make our small but hopefully useful impact on the CF and transplant communities in Japan.

Thank you for reading our blog. May you be blessed with adventure opportunities and wonderful intercultural encounters on your path.

 Isa

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