My conception of marriage was not a good one …”
Yuri and I arrived in Kamakura late one evening after an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles, a two-and a half-hour train ride from Narita International Airport and a 20-minute trudge up a steep, winding road with luggage clacking behind us. It was my first time in Japan, my first time in the Far East, and the one and only time I had to ask a 70-year-old Japanese man for his daughter’s hand in marriage–which, if the truth be told, I didn’t actually do (though I did marry his daughter).
I was overwhelmed those first few days: I blamed it on the jet lag, the shocking absence of central heating, mercurial Japanese reserve, menus in indecipherable Japanese and Chinese script, and the population’s determination not to use English, although they’d studied it from first grade through junior high. It wasn’t exactly culture shock—though Japan was far-less westernized than I’d anticipated—as much as it was nerves over my impending marriage. I’m not talking cold feet, I loved Yuri (she’d sparkled within me ever since I first saw her), but I was uncertain I could overcome my hang-ups and the specter of the past: the relationships I’d abandoned, all the jobs I’d quit, my record of transience, bouts of depression and the legacy of my parent’s divorce. My conception of marriage was not a good one; I thought of it as “square” institution designed for Rotary-Club types and the suspiciously religious. I figured I’d never be an adequate provider and that I’d grow bitter and half-mad spending my weekends at soccer practices, birthday parties and First Holy Communions.
My usual manner of making profound, life-changing decisions is to procrastinate and obfuscate until the panicky crush of a deadline finally provokes my will. When we left for Japan on New Year’s Day 2003 Yuri and I were living together and I was working full-time as an associate editor at a trade magazine for the American lumber industry–and this was about as much adult-level behavior as I could handle. But what I couldn’t duck was Yuri’s immigration status. The necessity of obtaining a Green Card forced my hand–Yuri either became a permanent U.S. resident by marrying me, or she returned to Japan single and alone. She was the woman I loved, so I acted, but not without being battered by the wounded spirits of my past.
Yuri had designed our Japanese trip to both commence, and satisfy, a number of marital-related tasks. She would first introduce me to her family, get the obligatory patriarchal blessing and finally “show me off” at a party hosted by her girlfriends in Tokyo. When it was all over, we’d fly back to the states and have a Justice of the Peace marry us in Southern California. Neither of us could have imagined, however, that when I finally met my future in-laws I’d be flat on my back with an IV jabbed in my arm.
Yuri’s old friend Noriko had invited us to stay at her parent’s home in a wealthy, hilly enclave of Kamakura. It was an aging, three-story house with blue roof tiles and a backyard with a fallow garden and expertly-pruned loquat and bitter orange trees. Yuri had met Noriko eight years earlier when she was a single mother and Noriko is, by Japanese standards, a most unusual woman: a divorcée whose second marriage was to Masa, a younger man (unheard of); she was a baptized Christian who attended an American-run evangelical church; she was an entrepreneur who worked as a New Age-style healer to deeply-troubled people suffering without the religious and psychiatric counsel we have in the West. And in marrying Masa, Noriko had done well because he loved her daughter despite the culture’s deep reservations about adoption and step-parenthood. Their reconstituted family lived in a company-owned high-rise apartment building in the horridly ugly city of Kobe. After our one night in Kamakura, we planned to wake up and see the Great Kamakura Buddha statue before taking a 5-hour train south to Kobe, where we’d have a chance to visit with Masa before departing the next day for Yuri’s hometown.
Neither of us could have imagined, however, that when I finally met my future in-laws I’d be flat on my back with an IV jabbed in my arm.”
On the coldest days you conduct your business in these rooms with a spirit of endurance, which is the one word that perfectly captures the Japanese attitude toward hardship.”
It was midnight when Yuri and I knocked on the door and bowed our way into Noriko’s family home. Instead of a brief and fluid welcome: hello there, kumbawa, how was the flight, segoy, great, (let’s wrap this up!), where is our bed, here is your room, all that kind of thing—we were ushered upstairs to meet Noriko’s elderly father for dinner. “I don’t need dinner. I need a bed,” I complained to Yuri. She shushed me with a furrowed brow that intimated formalities must be observed. Noriko’s father, as the male representative of the house, had been waiting up for us, though mostly for me because I was the soon-to-be-husband and protocol—as in the case of foreign dignitaries meeting on a state visit–required that rank be acknowledged. I was to be Yuri’s dana-san so he naturally wanted to break bread with me, drink some sake and exchange drunken pleasantries as if he were the Japanese Foreign Minister receiving the U.S. Secretary of State.
Our late-night meal consisted of miso soup and eggs sunny-side up over a bowl of rice. Yuri and her mother ran in and out with plates, bottles of beer and eventually green tea (tea at one in the morning?). Yuri and I sat on the tatami floor across the table from Noriko’s father who had been drinking beer all night and was worryingly intoxicated. Yellow rivulets of egg yolk seeped into my rice as I fingered my chopsticks and nodded at his volatile-sounding pronouncements, while occasionally looking to Yuri and Noriko for laconic translations. He proudly told me he’d worked as an engineer at the Yokosuka U.S. Naval base in the ‘60s and ‘70s and his family used to celebrate Thanksgiving each year with a real American turkey from the base PX. Noriko added that eating turkey was (and is) almost unheard of in Japan and that her childhood had been an unusually western one. “We had cereal, toast, jam, and even coffee for breakfast,” Noriko said ruefully, as if describing a childhood of unspeakable horrors.
As Noriko’s nimble 68-year-old mother popped up from her crouching position on the floor and dutifully took away my dinner bowls, Yuri finally steered the conversation toward our sleeping arrangements. She learned we’d be sleeping in the third-floor, but to dampen my enthusiasm she added the bedroom was unheated. I surveyed the room and noticed our comfort was due to two glowing space heaters. Instead of central heating, Japanese homes rely on space heaters or the ubiquitous kotatsu, which is a kind of coffee table rimmed with a blanket-like “skirt” that capturers the warmth generated from a small heater. The Japanese slip their legs under the kotatsu blanket and it becomes their go-to-place for eating, napping, watching TV and doing homework. During winter the bathroom, kitchen, hallways and bedrooms area spaces where you see your breath. On the coldest days you conduct your business in these rooms with a spirit of endurance, which is the one word that perfectly captures the Japanese attitude toward hardship. And hardship is what you experience when you slip between chilled bed sheets in a freezing room. The traditional foil to a cold bed is taking a hot bath beforehand, which Noriko planned to draw for me and Yuri. Being an American I naturally declined the bath, announcing I’d shower in the morning instead. My decision produced a ripple of frowns and worried expressions across the women’s faces. After some discussions, Yuri politely turned to me and stressed how a hot bath would be the prudent approach considering the season.
I refused to give in, however. “Remember I grew up in New England,” I said, making eye contact with everyone. “I’m pretty hardy when it comes to the cold.”
“But you live in California now,” Yuri said, smiling. “And so, you have become weak.” Yuri’s politely delivered corrective was in the perfect tradition of the Japanese wife who remains level-headed and respectful when dealing with male foolishness.
I refused to budge. Exhaustion and inertia precluded me from entering a bathroom without heat, washing myself with a hand-held shower nozzle while squatting, and finally, inching toe-by-toe into a scalding bath. I wanted only the obliteration of sleep.
As Yuri bathed, I trudged up to the third floor where I discovered we’d be sharing our bedroom with 11-year-old Kana, who was reading manga in a futon next to our bed. Noriko and Kana had visited us six months earlier in California, and ever since then Kana had decided we were best friends despite our 20-year age difference and language barrier. She waved at me and scrunched up her shoulders in delight as if reading a clandestine manga (banned for reasons of taste by Noriko), wearing girly pajamas and having her favorite gaijin playfriend for a sleepover, was the height of pre-pubescent pleasure.
Yuri returned from the first-floor in pajamas and with rose-colored cheeks from the bath. We settled into the frigid bed together until we heard the sing-song voice of Noriko’s mother, who wobbled into the room holding a cast-iron bed warmer mounted on the end of a long stick. Undeterred by my refusal to take a bath she had decided, with my fragile California constitution and her hospitality on the line, to resurrect a traditional method of combating winter chills. Yuri and I both sat up in astonishment as Noriko’s oka-san lifted up the comforter and pushed the glowing device under the sheets as if she was shoving a pie into an oven. The bed quickly warmed and I finally closed my eyes for a few peaceful moments of dreamy abandon, at least until I woke an hour later to find the reading lamp still on, and Kana paging through her beloved manga.
I wanted only the obliteration of sleep.”
… she had decided, with my fragile California constitution and her hospitality on the line, to resurrect a traditional method of combating winter chills.”
In the morning I pressed my face against the window pane with the wonder of a child peering into an aquarium tank. It was a cold, damp morning with skies like wet concrete, but I was swaddled in the excitement of that first morning in a foreign country. Noriko’s oka-san again made us miso soup and rice. I gobbled it down before showering and changing. Yuri urged me to dry my hair before we left the house. The temperature was in the high 30s. I told her I’d toweled it dry and that she needn’t worry. I was impatient to see the Great Buddha and I hustled Kana and Yuri out the door pressing scarfs and gloves into their hands.
A frigid breeze racked the train platform. It was damp and heavy, redolent of salt water, as if it had originated deep within an ocean grotto. The dampness penetrated my clothes as I strode up toward the temple grounds with Yuri and Kana: the dampness clung to stone lanterns, imbricated roof tiles and sagging telephone wires.
We jostled through a crowd of junior high students in blue naval uniforms before entering the grounds. It wasn’t difficult to spot the great Kamakura Buddha. He was sequestered in meditation on a raised stone platform at the end of a narrow gravel courtyard. His ancient bronze élan had alchemized to a fine patina, which if not from the vitriol of the elements, you might suspect was alkaline sweat from centuries of waiting on enlightenment. Behind the statue, a heavily-forested hillock of cherry, oak and pine trees framed the Buddha, as if a reminder that Shinto’s nature deities had never been entirely displaced by Buddhism.
Kana skipped ahead to the statue. I dug out my English-language brochure and read that the statue was 13.35 meters, or just over 43-ft. tall. I scanned the brochure for more details that might help illuminate why, despite the unquestioned artistry and beauty of the statue, I felt neither moved nor consoled. How could that be? This artifact dated from the 13th century and I, after all, was a Buddhist.
A few months before coming to Japan I had taken Buddhist precepts during a ceremony at a Korean-style Zen center in Long Beach. During the initiation I had received a Buddhist name and had had the skin of my inner arm burned with an incense stick as a mark of my commitment. This official entrée into Buddhism had raised expectations for my Japanese visit; I began to think of myself, not as just another American tourist, but as a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem.
Kana and Yuri took in the statue’s grandeur with smiles and ejaculations of approval. They didn’t have any trouble getting something from the statue. My disappointment and mental unrest set in motion a spiral of self-loathing thoughts; a muddle of denouncements and self-recriminations, with some centered on my failure to leverage Zen for any lasting peace (which was part of a larger motif of feeling like an impostor, whether as a Zen student, a writer, a friend, a fiancée, etc.), while others hammered away at my unworthiness to marry Yuri. There was also the creeping terror of knowing that Yuri’s father, an old-school Japanese man who had grown up during the starving years of the 1940s, would peg me as an unserious man. How could he understand I’d grown up in family where tradition and customs had collapsed during my childhood? Traditions frightened me. They asked things from me I couldn’t give. Yuri’s older sister had had an omiai, or arranged marriage, in the late 1980s, where Yuri’s father and mother had managed and paid for a traditional Shinto wedding with all the expensive bells and whistles. It was not a “love marriage” as we know it in the West, but more of a social arrangement to guarantee the family name and property. I had grown up in a culture where tradition meant The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and ancient history was the Korean War and Ella Fitzgerald records; and here I was entering a family who had pressed their daughter into a feudal contract that dated back to the Tokugawa Shogunate and the 17th Century. And though the authority of Yuri’s father had weakened considerably since his stroke a decade earlier, he was still a traditional old-school man and I feared his scathing judgment. The Japan I desired was the invented one of Hiroshige and Basho. I wanted the traditional world of craftsmen and refinement, but served up free of its rigid social codes and bushido instincts.
I returned my gaze to the Buddha, but he offered nothing except the example of silence. I turned to the dozens of Japanese tourists around me: they were having fun; they expected nothing from the Buddha and were clearly the better for it. They understood it was not a place of introspection or reverence any more–it was just an attraction. An end to suffering will come soon enough with death, the Japanese were telling me, so you mustn’t burden yourself with introspection. After a cursory glance at the Buddha, with the predictable superlative sugoy (wonderful!), the Japanese strolled over to kiosks where they bought red been sweets and yakitori, along with talisman that guaranteed everything from handsome boyfriends to healthy pregnancies. The Buddha, it seemed, was a nothing more than a charming backdrop to the real exigencies of life: food and good fortune.
Three days after leaving Kamakura I found myself lying on a futon in a tatami-covered room in Kobe. I was in Kana’s bedroom where plastic storage bins stuffed with lesson books, retired pencil cases, classical music CDs, palm-sized novels and rumpled clothing rose high against the wall. There was no central heating in Kobe either–it was in the low 50s inside–and I was sick with a flu that had swept over me two days before. I was battling diarrhea, dehydration and headaches, but mostly I felt stupid. I was sick because of my damp hair that morning in Kamakura. I had refused a nighttime bath and the offer to blow-dry my hair because I remained weirdly recalcitrant regarding matters of no importance. It was an unconscious pattern where I tried to control people and events by resistance and passivity; if I was an environmental activist, I wouldn’t be the guy tossing bricks at WTO protests, but the one chained to a logging truck in a remote old-growth forest.
My sickness had already put us a day-and—a-half behind schedule. Yuri was on the phone with her mother every few hours with updates. It was clear I’d need a few more days before I could handle of boarding and reboarding several trains to reach western Japan. Yuri and I hadn’t discussed the possibility of canceling, but it was looking as if we might be too pinched for time to reach her hometown. I certainly didn’t want to meet her parents in my sick and anxious condition, but the situation was weighing me down with guilt. We were to be married in three weeks and canceling our visit would cause problems between me and Yuri. She wasn’t blaming me for getting sick–she was too fair-minded for that–but we both knew I’d brought it on by my own stupidity. As I lay in Kana’s futon I began thinking that the illness had somehow externalized the drama occurring within me: my snarled unruly hair, gaunt expression and soiled clothes were nothing more than manifestations of the turmoil within. For a number of years I walked in the world like a Navajo medicine man, finding portends of my future in the mechanics of the natural world. I was big on coincidences and open to numerology and Tarot cards. My nascent cosmology was best summed-up in the refrain “everything happens for a reason,” which buffered me from a creeping nihilism that said nothing, including marriage, love, or even my own aspirations, meant anything. My metaphysical point-of-view told me my illness in Japan was a spiritual malaise with the flu only being a trigger.
Noriko, during one of her many visits to California, had begun informally treating me and Yuri for a host of spiritual/physiological ailments. In Kobe she continued by caring for me with a combination of spirit-channeling and traditional Japanese medicine (loquat leaves under my armpits and warmed sea salt on my throat): she told me she regularly made contact with my “my higher self” and these communiques–which sounded like the diaries of an inner child–were a great source of comfort to me. I told her I felt a dark presence in Kobe, which she attributed to the unsettled spirits from the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the aerial bombing during the Second World War.
Yuri remained by my side in Kobe helping Noriko, and dutifully filling my endless requests for water, tissues and tea, but I knew a revolution was brewing: “How could you do this to me Rob?” the voices within her seemed to be screaming. “I didn’t ask for a wedding or an engagement ring, did I? No! All I wanted was for you to meet my parents before we got married. Is that too much to ask?”
After three days of eating rice soup, sleeping fitfully and listening as Yuri make phone calls home, I decided I had to get up and go. We both knew the flu had provided an excuse to cancel our plans and fly back to California, but it was the passivity option, the one I’d exercised far too often in my life. I trusted Yuri, she wasn’t going to end our engagement. I wouldn’t be able to stomach myself if I took this opportunity to duck out on her.
Traditions frightened me. They asked things from me I couldn’t give.”
I laughed, and it felt like the first lite moment we’d shared since arriving in the country.”
The taxi ride from tiny Notobe Station to Yuri’s family home takes only five minutes. And I can say without fear of contradiction that I was the first foreigner in our driver’s taxicab, and maybe even the first foreigner he’d ever seen in person. Yuri lives in the North Dakota of Japan and the driver wasn’t shy about taking in the spectacle. He took several none-too-furtive glances at me in the rear-view mirror, and when he was satisfied, he announced to Yuri that I was “a very handsome man.” He said it, of course, in Japanese, which meant I was oblivious as I gazed out the window at a dream-like Asian landscape of snow-covered rice fields and hills jammed with bamboo and cedar.
Yuri had a wry grin on her face as she translated the cabbie’s compliment. “Only in Japan,” I laughed, and it felt like the first lite moment we’d shared since arriving in the country.
The taxi stopped before her family’s barn-like garage and within seconds of meeting my mother-in-law, I was hustled into the family’s shrine room, which in anticipation of my fragile arrival, had been turned into a sick bay. A space heater glowed from the corner and a steaming cup of green tea was beside a warm futon with an electric blanket. The shrine, or Butsudan, resembled a Spanish altarpiece with gold-leaf facing and generous alcoves for religious actors. The room smelt of cedar incense and candle wax and on the wall were portrait-photographs of Yuri’s ancestors, all of whom appeared vexed at this inexplicable intrusion into their afterlives.
The doorbell rang and Yuri’s mother sang out, Hai, hai,” as she rushed to the formal entrance in back. She returned with a talkative, well-groomed man in his early 60s and his assistant, a nondescript middle-aged nurse. The doctor clutched a black leather medical bag, the kind American country doctors used in the 1930s. He set up an IV stand and then jabbed a needle into my arm. The infusion contained a mixture of sugar water and vitamins and hit my dehydrated, ill-nourished veins like a narcotic. The doctor chatted away with Yuri’s mother as he checked and re-checked the IV lines. In the village, house calls were also social visits where residents exchanged news on who was now ill and who had recently died: it was a kind of Facebook for the over-60 crowd. The nurse, although she was reserved and far more formal, edged over to Yuri, and with a modest bow said, “your fiancée is very handsome.” Yuri passed on the compliment, though this time her translation was bathed in snarikiness.
Two days later I had the strength to sit at the dinner table for the first time. It was there, without preamble, where Yuri asked for her father’s blessing. It was hardly the formal, Edo-era solemnity I had envisioned: her mother was leaning over the table distributing rice bowls when it happened. I was clueless the conversation had taken a ceremonial turn until Yuri said matter-of-factly, “I just asked Dad for you.” And that was it. I looked at her father. He was in a wheelchair because of his paralysis, and he paused for what seemed to be a moment of reflection, before giving me a regal, sidelong glance and then a nod. I dropped my head in gratitude. We had obtained the required patriarchal blessing and our trip had been saved.
On my most recent visit to Japan, my fifth in ten years, something finally clicked between me and Japanese culture. Yuri and I were lunching with our friend Yoshie. Yuri described my experience drinking bitter green tea, macha (the kind used in the Japanese tea ceremony), and eating traditional red bean sweets called anko. Anko was a common gift among the Japanese and showed up on nearly every kitchen table and kotatsu we encountered. This combination of beans and sugar was not an appetizing one for me. Beans in my opinion were reserved exclusively for savory dishes. Yet one afternoon I gave into the exhortations of Yuri’s mother and sampled some anko while drinking bitter macha. To my great surprise these two opposites produced a pleasure so refined and complete that I raved about it for days. It wasn’t the pleasure of chocolate with coffee—that combination always left me wanting more—I was never satisfied. But one cup of macha, and one or two pieces of anko, was heavenly
Yoshie listened to the story nodding and smiling. “Yeah, that figures,” she told Yuri. “When Rob came here the first time he was a child in the culture. But now, after so many trips, he has grown up. Now he is an adult here.” And she said this with the slight boredom of someone remarking on a banal truth, like the oppressive heat one encounters in August.
Ten years on, I still visit temples whenever I’m back in Japan, but I don’t force them to be what they aren’t. Sundays now mean a Japanese-language Mass (I’m Catholic now, which is a whole other story) where Yuri stands next to me and whispers cues like, “Now they’re saying The Our Father.” And each time I return to the North Dakota of Japan it feels more and more like a homecoming, where I’m reminded the bitterness of life precedes the sweetness of salvation, and mercifully, there is still one place on earth where I’m as handsome as George Clooney.
Photo header by Moyan Brenn. Read his feature about Japan here.