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Local ties enrich Japan trip

Descending from Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera temple at dusk

By Carey Quan Gelernter, 2019 Japan Tour traveler

One day last February, I’d picked up a copy of The North American Post, and my eye was drawn to a small article about a September trip to Japan. Japan had been on my bucket list for some time.

The item said the Post was sponsoring a cultural enrichment trip for the local Japanese American community. When I inquired, trip co-leader Misa Murohashi assured me that the trip was not restricted to Japanese Americans but rather welcomed any whose interests coincided with the trip’s aims.

At a trip orientation meeting, Misa asked each person in the group to share what our connection was to Japan. I have no connection by heritage, and neither does my husband or my two cousins from Portland who were also going. Besides sharing a feeling that Japan would be fascinating to visit, we all have an interest in Asian American history —  something that my cousins and I particularly feel as Chinese Americans (I’m half) — and an interest in immigration, a topic so important to American history.

And as we suspected, traveling with Seattle- and Portland-area people with roots in Japan made the trip especially meaningful to us. One of the best things about our fall trip was being able to share the immigration stories of travel mates. Among us were Japanese war brides, living in the U.S. many years now and treasuring the trips they make back to Japan. Our group included a woman whose Japanese American father, as a medical student, was stuck in Japan when World War II broke out and had to struggle against the U.S. government to get his citizenship back. As we boarded the Hikawa Maru ocean liner that had plied the route between Yokohama harbor and Seattle, she remembered playing aboard when finally, at age 9, she and her family were allowed back to Seattle.

The ship is moored near the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum, whose exhibits narrate the history of the more than 2.5 million Japanese who left their homeland to settle in Hawaii, and North, Central, and South America. This small but information-packed museum is not a regular stop of most guided tours but was a highlight for our group.

A Sansei couple among us, originally from Hawaii, is descended from contract laborers to Hawaii. As we learned in the museum, from 1885 to 1894, more than 29,000 contract laborers traveled to the Kingdom of Hawaii to work on sugar plantations —most venturing into completely unknown circumstances since Japan was so isolated at that time. The husband of the couple shared his family history with us, including the circumstances that allowed one branch of his family to survive the brutal conditions in the sugarcane fields. He also told us about his uncle’s memories of returning to Japan after the war and having many Japanese widows clamoring to become his wife because conditions in Japan were desperately bad at the time.

In Kamishichiken a Kyoto geisha district for the Kotobuki Kai dance performance

There was special resonance, too, as we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. All people of the world should find it meaningful to make this pilgrimage, and all Americans especially because it was American bombs that wreaked death and destruction on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their people. But there was added meaning for those who had relatives in wartime Japan, or who knew that, had not their grandparents, great-grandparents or parents decided to leave Japan, they too could have been victims.

The immigration stories of our Japanese-born guides also enriched our experience. One, Misa, now lives in Seattle, having married a Seattleite, but still spends time in Japan each year. The other, Yuki Okamura, came to Seattle as a child with her Japanese businessman father, went back to Japan for high school and college and now lives here. These two bicultural guides brought much insight into Japanese society.

A kaiseki dish in Kyoto

Because they knew the culture and particularly the city of Tokyo, where both had lived, they could help us on individual ventures we wanted to add to the guided tour. The tour is jampacked with activities, but there were a few windows of time where we could do our own thing. Some people with relatives in different cities or friends arranged to meet them. The guides knew the best places to sit at a bar to watch people on a Friday evening. Misa helped my husband and me book an evening at a club showcasing traditional nihon buyo dancing and a Noh performance, and she and Yuki helped us map out and find our way to the right subway connections. Misa also helped me book a ticket to something that, as a dance afficionado, I really wanted to attend: the October yearly dance performance in Kamishichiken, one of the smaller geisha districts in Kyoto, and also a kaiseki meal in Kyoto in a 600-plus-year-old venue where no one spoke English, so we couldn’t have managed on our own.

And their bicultural knowledge helped illuminate all manner of things obscure to those of us, like me, who did not have knowledge of the culture – such as how to conduct ourselves in the onsen, the Japanese bath.

They could point us to foods we should try that were specialties in each area we visited: oysters in Miyajima (the best I’ve ever had); the Tokyo and Hiroshima versions of the savory okonomiyaki pancakes; chestnut sweets in Shibamata, a quiet, still-traditional district of Tokyo;   a fresh unfiltered sake in the mountainous Shirakawa-go region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a tiny spot where we also watched the chef make and scoop out freshly made soba, so refreshing in the late autumn heat.

Sensoji Temple in Tokyo

Best of all was when we put ourselves in our guides’ hands to order for us. One night in Kyoto, they led a group of us who still had energy, down the hillside from the Kiyomizu-dera temple through narrow streets fronted by 17th-century traditional teahouses, shops, and restaurants lit up with lanterns. They led us into an izakaya’s tatami room, and we nibbled and imbibed this and that, everything good, and the bill we divided was so reasonable. 

I still don’t know exactly what we ate. But I do know being part of a bicultural trip made the authentic experience possible.