By Edna Horiuchi
My first trip to Japan was in the summer of 2016. I was very nervous about meeting my recently-discovered Minami relatives, on my dad’s mother’s side. What if I didn’t like them or if they didn’t like us? I brought a whole suitcase of gifts or omiyage, carefully selected from Trader Joe’s.
I was visiting my son, Kenzo, who was doing a semester of study abroad during his junior year at U.C. Berkeley. The last time we had traveled together had been when he was in high school, not happy to travel with mom. But now he was a young adult and a good travel companion.
His study abroad semester had been at Tohoku University in Sendai, in northern Japan. Kenzo became my tour guide in Sendai. He took me to his favorite restaurants and gave me a tour of the university. We visited Zuihoden, the ornate mausoleum of famous Sendai warlord, Date Masamune, and his descendents. We flew from Sendai to Fukuoka, in southern Japan. The next morning, we boarded a train to Kumamoto to meet our Japanese relatives for the first time.
When I saw Kikuo Minami, my grandmother’s nephew, I was immediately struck by how short he was. I flashed back to meeting my grandmother in third grade and discovering I was taller than she! Kikuo wore glasses and had a warm, welcoming smile which dissolved my fears. My uncle and aunt from Hawaii, Hito and Mas, also met us at the station.
Kikuo’s house was located in the countryside, not far from the ocean. As he drove from the city, he pointed out the damage from the recent earthquake. On some blocks, the buildings were destroyed on one side of the street but intact on the other side. The Kumamoto Castle was currently closed because of widespread damage to the retaining wall.
Kikuo’s house was in a crowded neighborhood of houses with blue tiled roofs and narrow alleys. His contractor’s sign advertised his business from the driveway of his two-story house. Kikuo came from several generations of contractors. He lived with his wife, Leiko, and their oldest son, Yoshifumi, and Yoshifumi’s 9 year-old daughter, Meiko.
Leiko was a cheerful woman who greeted us when we came in. There were two big fish tanks in the entrance, where we took our shoes off. We took our suitcases upstairs and were given the choice of two bedrooms, one without air and the other with. Kenzo turned on the air, plopped down on the futon, and promptly went to sleep. I decided we would share that bedroom. One side of the house had an open balcony with a laundry line and an expansive view of the neighborhood.
The house was sweltering, but sliding doors closed off a small downstairs living room where a portable air conditioner kept the room cool. I suddenly understood the concept of sliding doors in a Japanese house. Hito and Mas were sitting on the little sofa next to a table. I sat on one of the floor cushions. Leiko offered us Japanese cookies, rice crackers, and hot tea.
Kikuo and Yoshifumi left and came back, after checking on things for the relatives’ get-together that night. Meiko joined us but she was quiet and a little shy. Kikuo and Yoshifumi opened up the sliding doors at the end of the living room, making a much bigger room. Kenzo (now awake!) and I helped them pull out low tables and floor cushions from storage to lay on the tatami floor mats.
There was a family altar at the end of the room with pictures of my grandmother and Kikuo’s parents. There was also a picture of my Minami great-grandparents, Kijiro and Mume, that I had never seen before. Their stern faces stared out at me. They were dressed in formal kimonos. Kijiro and Mume were the parents of my grandmother, Nobu, and her younger brother, Toraki (Kikuo’s dad). My grandmother also had a younger sister, Tojiu, who had five children. Four of them would be visiting in the evening. Another of Kikuo and Leiko’s sons would be coming, along with his wife and three children.We would be meeting the rest of the Minami clan!
The seafood, sushi, and sashimi plates ordered by Hito soon started arriving at the house, along with cases of sake. Soon afterward, the Minami clan began arriving. They were very kind, just like my grandmother, and very happy to see Kenzo and me. Kenzo’s three years of Japanese lessons at U.C. Berkeley paid off, since he was able to translate for us. Our relatives spoke little English and I spoke little Japanese. We met Nobuo and Kiyoko, Toyoko and Yuuichi, Shuichi and Hideko, and Hisako.
They liked the colorful Trader Joe bags that I gave them, along with the nuts or dried fruit. They seemed especially appreciative that we had brought the gifts from such a long distance.
Kikuo and Leiko’s third son, Masatomo, arrived with his wife, Yoko, and three young children, ages 8, 6, and 2 years. Their oldest son Kanta, was very serious. The middle boy, Shunsuke, was a real rascal and always scampering around getting into things. The little girl was very sweet.
At the feast that evening, I sat with Kenzo, Yoshifumi, Mas, and a very talkative relative, Nobuo. Nobuo was the oldest son of my grandmother’s sister, Tojiu. He was a farmer and spoke with a strong Kumamoto dialect. Kenzo couldn’t understand a word he said! Yoshifumi translated Nobuo’s Kumamoto dialect into standard Japanese. Kenzo translated the Japanese into English. This line of translation continued for the entire evening.
At the end of the evening, we took a group picture with the Minami clan and my uncle and aunt from Hawaii. I felt amazed to be posing with people that I hadn’t even known about six months before!
Before we left Kumamoto, we received another surprise. On the morning we were leaving, Kikuo and Leiko took us to visit my grandmother’s memorial. Even though her ashes were in Hawaii, it was touching that there was a memorial in Japan. We burned incense and put some greenery in a vase. The memorial overlooked a quiet hill and a pretty field. After that, Kenzo and I quickly finished packing and headed to the train station. We were traveling to Yamaguchi, about an hour away, to visit the former family temple of my great-grandfather on my mother’s side.
[Editor’s Note] This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at <www.discovernikkei.org>, which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Edna Horiguchi is a third grade teacher. She enjoys traveling and is trying to learn Japanese. Her son, Kenzo, is now working as a structural engineer in San Francisco.