Everything about Japan was as I imagined perhaps for no other reason than I had never really thought about it before. I arrived ready to accept whatever that was.
I knew I always had a weird connection to Japanese culture. My top two destinations on my bucket list were South Africa and Japan. I knew I would always get there at least on my own and especially by now. I never really thought about what it would be like to have someone else on these grand scheming adventures of mine. Still, everything is exactly as I thought it would be… just… better.
Stark and I are and have become even more so, the world’s greatest traveling duo. Where one is laid back, the other is geared for spontaneity, and those roles are constantly switching. No one is in the drivers seat, and all the world is there to see!
The fact that I have such a perfect traveling partner is special enough. Every little detail on the street seems much more picturesque when that detail, however great or small, is shared. Having a group of friends to travel with as well? Especially when our travel group has shifted from Stark’s trusty rat pack to include my friends. I never would have thought!
I spent years trying to get friends to attend free concerts with me, and it wasn’t always easy! Those days were free and easy to come by in the music business. But, to shell out a month or more worth of income to come across the world with Stark and I? Well, that’s beyond surprising. I never thought I knew anyone in my life that would make that kind of dedication – family or friends. But, alas, I know many now. And specifically, I know these two that have now traveled across the world two years in a row and through three countries with us. I find that fact to be more overwhelming than any busy street of Shinjuku, or Shibuya crossing. I couldn’t be happier to be surrounded by such a comfort of people that I can’t believe are still in my life despite all manner of distance.
Little did anyone know how badly I needed that bubble of familiarity right now in my life; something I can say I know and have gotten to know because everything else, to me, was lost in time.
What I mean is more than just the familiarity of friends. What I mean is each corner, each moment seemed as though I had been there before. Not literally, but as a ghost from a past that wasn’t mine.
Stark and I lived by our primary travel rules which I’ll summarize (without his approval) as: to plan nothing and experience everything.
We had a hotel for the first few days and a hotel for the last few days. That was basically it other than our flights (and even those changed). So, we did whatever it was we were going to do.
We slept in.
We found local stores.
We visited local doctors (that’s another story), twice.
We spent our first evening simply getting familiar with Japan, finding ourselves in the heart of Shinjuku for a pair of new socks and some CoCo Curry House at the edge of Piss Alley.
On day two, our friends didn’t arrive. At the mercy of a cancelled flight, some of them were back home and some of them were in Seattle. So Stark willingly accompanied me to Harajuku to lay to rest my obsession with this punk rock/cosplay subculture. I appropriately decked out in a random collection of London inspired fashion and Gwen Stefani’s pink eye shadow, named Harajuku after her song “Harajuku Girls”.
We had no idea the SWARM of thousands of people jammed in the streets of Harajuku, moving their way in one massive direction through dozens of second-hand and vintage fashion stores. I was fascinated by the upcycled clothing pieced together and designed by cute little Asian women that stood at the stairs of their stores shaking the arms of hanging shirts and insisting repeatedly, “Mine! I design. Mine.”
Without having read any Harajuku guides beforehand, in hindsight I learned I did Harajuku right! That’s to say, I came out with a pair of colored contacts, a light pink wig, and a dozen pins, patches, and stickers all made and designed locally. Stark and I also managed to sit back and spend our lunch having vending machine strawberry lattes in a room filled with Bengal kittens. Later, on our last day in Tokyo, I took my friend DH back with me so I could snatch up some second-hand silk kimonos, show him the craze of Harajuku, find the perfect souvenir for him to take home, and this time, attend the Owl Cafe.
Stark and I ended our Harajuku day with at a pop-up container shop having Nitro coffee. I had been on the hunt for a particular brand of Japanese jewelry which wound up taking us through an entire handmade jewelry district that I have to say, was quite inspiring. I was ready to go back; to walk the streets one more time, insistent on finding the perfect outfit right then, but Stark couldn’t do it anymore. One more walk through and then it was home for us. It was late. Not many things in Japan stay open as late as you might imagine.
At this point, nothing has really hit me. It was when we checked into the awe-inspiring, ridiculously amazing, and life spoiling experience that is the Park Hyatt Tokyo where I felt like I was suddenly adopting the memories of my mom’s trip to Japan, 34 years earlier.
Beaming with excitement, taking photos of everything, and eager to do nothing but spend time in our amazing room for the rest of the day, everything felt like it called for a celebration. So naturally, we began with a bottle of Rose champagne from the room’s bar. And we clinked our two glasses together over a 180 degree view of Tokyo. I couldn’t hug or kiss Stark enough to really express how special I felt that he would repeat a place he’s been and something he’s already done simply to include me in a part of his life he so often defines as one of his favorites.
After a long, cedarwood and sage bath where we finished our champagne and watched falling snow from the two televisions in the room, I wrapped myself in the provided yukata and sat at the edge of the bed in total awe.
As soon as I sat, it was as if my entire being escaped me – flying backwards in time as I starred, mouth slightly open and wide-eyes completely lost on the little black analog clock that sat at the bedside table.
A brief flash and I remembered my dad had a black leather suitcase with zippers.
Another flash and I could sense the smell of my parents closet as they pulled stored items from upper shelves. Items like, a suitcase perhaps?
I couldn’t be sure. I wasn’t the one actually there. At least, barely there.
I would have been 2, 3, or even 4 years old and yet I could see through my young eyes as if engrossed in the most intense virtual reality – peering up at my mom, neck all the way back as I watched her reach on the very tips of her toes to pull down the yellow box of photographs. All of me. On the sides we’re blocks and a bear. A B C. I would have pointed and read them out loud, so proud of myself.
Opening the box on the floor of the closet, I was easily entertained by the hundreds of pictures of the first few years of my life. I could have been a baby model based on the amount of photos taken, but to be honest, I don’t think I was all that cute. I think I was rather strange looking for a baby. So, who knew if it was the investment in new camera equipment around the time I was born, or if people genuinely thought I was the cutest kid they’d ever seen, but here was the box to prove it. A box that none of us have seen since…
But, I remember.
I remember the smell of worn, Italian leather shoes stacked just to the right of me and the looming smell of rabbit furs stuffed in an oversized, white bag at the top corner of the closet – certainly a memory of her family, someone I never knew that spent their life as a furrier.
I remember none of the shoes had been chewed on so we didn’t have a dog, yet, which meant I wasn’t four. I was younger.
My mom was packing. Getting things together for my dad to go… somewhere. I don’t know where he went when I was that young. I barely comprehended time well enough to understand that he was ever gone, only that he was going.
And every time he traveled, these million years ago, he took this exact same travel clock.
That was the first time I really thought of it, and to be honest, it only struck me as long as it took for me to say it out loud. “My Dad had that clock for when he traveled…” And just like that, I was on to my own experience, taken back by the comfort and the views of Park Hyatt living.
The next week went by quickly. My friends and Stark’s brother arrived in town. I
n a way, we did Tokyo all over again, but in a sort of group fashion. We played the arcade games. We closed out Golden Gai. And we ate in one of those ridiculously delicious, top rated, unknown little sushi joints that seat a max of seven people in the entire restaurant. At the hands of the chef, we ate… and we ate. That was pretty much the theme of most nights.
After only a day or two all together, we all went on our way to Osaka – our hub for the Sazuka Circuit Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix race.
Every day for three days we would train to the track for the day and at night we would go on short adventures. Our first night, before the race started, we went to Kobe just to have dinner. And the place recommended to us just so happened to be hibachi style Kobe beef.
Memory lane number two…
I outgrew Sizzler and Olive Garden for my birthday dinner by the time I was 8 or 9 years old. By then, I had moved on to bigger and better things. Every year since then and up until just after meeting Stark, I was a hibachi and sushi kind of girl. (Now, I’ve moved on to strictly sushi.)
The art of hibachi in Japan is not the Hollywood joke that the states makes it out to seem. No one is jokingly spilling soy sauce on you or trying to flip shrimp into your shirt pocket. Instead, it is a reverend observation of just how much attention is applied to each and every delicate aspect of a single meal. To watch feels like an honor.
Around this time is when I texted, “Hey! I had hibachi in Japan. It must be someone’s birthday!” For a while, my dad traced down memory lane through random texts over the course of the next day or two – making suggestions to which I could always respond, “Yup. Did it!” He also talked about how in 1982 he and my mom stayed on what he thought was a Hyatt overlooking a very large park in the center of Tokyo.
Riding the Shinkansen (“Yup. Did it!”) bullet train, reading through his texts, I was excited at the idea that I stayed in the exact same hotel as my parents, walked through the same park, tied my prayer to the same shrine line, and commented on the same beautiful gardens my mom had fallen in love with so long ago.
Despite Stark going full logical to prove that the hotel we stayed in wasn’t even built until over a decade later, part of me believed that maybe it was rebuilt. Maybe it existed somewhere else. Without my explaining anything, my dad spoke about the sculptures, the New York Grill at the top of the hotel, the jazz singers… everything!
The likelihood we walked even the same streets of Tokyo between the 1980’s and today is next to impossible. Things change. Popular places change. The city grows and moves. I tried to think nothing more of it.
Then, without planning, we found ourselves in Kyoto. For one evening, we did all of Kyoto’s top tourist his between sunset and 10pm. The golden shrine was amazing as the sun set off of its bright corners, and the Inari shrine is phenomenal and personal when exploring after dark.
It was at the golden pagoda that we stopped at the first gift shop and with a smile I ran my hands across some silk wallets and small purses. “Ohhhh this has memories,” I said do Stark. “I still have that yellow and blue one there in the closet back home, but this wallet. I swear I had a little silk wallet like this and matching stationary as a kid.” By then, I wasn’t sure he was listening because I found myself trailing off, huddling around the corner where I found the perfect little coin purse to mark the memory.
I’m not one for purchasing souvenirs or getting too excited about gifts. As they say, it simply isn’t my “love language.” But, a coin purse I could justify. Living abroad, coins are all the rage and I always have them floating around. Now I won’t. It was as simple as that, and just happened to have the added perk of briefly reminding me about a distant memory I couldn’t quite fully latch on to.
So, I moved on.
For some reason I stepped into their second, larger gift shop. I’m not even sure if it was my choice to go in or if we had agreed as a group that we needed to find the perfect bookshelf souvenirs for Shaun. Either way, this is where his souvenir was found, and I likely would have never even made it to that wall of the store if Stark and his brother didn’t call me over to ask my opinion.
“This one. Definitely this one.” I pointed. And as Shaun turned to make his purchase, I thumbed the corners of a stack of little pink embroidered handkerchiefs. I touch everything. I always have to know how something feels. So there, mindlessly running my fingers across the piles, it was as though a piece of my brain crashed open like an old trunk suddenly tipped over in the shadows of a cob web filled attic. And just as quickly, I was on my knees, holding this one handkerchief with both of my hands, clutching, unwinding to take a glance, and clutching again.
“Do you want that?” Stark asked, standing above me. Like me, he thinks in practical terms. Take what you want, but also only what you can carry. I’m sure he knew as well as I knew that sure, this would be great for my go green personality and the fact that I’m constantly using a Kleenex. But, that wasn’t it.
From the floor of the shop, I peered up at him. Just the movement of my eyes from the floor toward the light caused kept tears to suddenly stream down my face. Two or three fell quickly, all in a row.
“I…” clearing my throat to speak again, “I had one just like this.”
Then, I remembered.
I remembered exactly what the stationary looked like and just how long I kept it.
I remembered the rice paper umbrella at the corner of my sister’s room.
I remembered the light pinks and purples of a handheld fan.
I remembered when she took me to the mall with all my saved babysitters money, to buy a pair of pants with a dragon embroidered down the back side.
I remembered the pile of Sci Fi books donated to me by my brother that summer, just before starting high school.
And I remembered the last few major moments my Mom and I spent together. I remember picking up two boxes of California Rolls one afternoon, to sit in a local park where I tearfully explained the pains of my very first real heart break. I remembered hating the idea of moving to Texas and being convinced that if we moved, my Mom and I could design the landscape and my room together. Of course, we chose to do a traditional Japanese garden with a rock bed and water feature, and my room was decked out with Japanese scripts, paintings, and sculptures.
At that point, I inherited everything she had left from her 1982 visit to Japan. It all became an intricate part of the space I was creating. And in one final attempt to make me comfortable with having moved to yet another new place and another new high school, we took off to Disney World where, in Epcot, we chose the perfect red maple bonsai as a final touch.
We never did finish decorating my room together. The paintings weren’t yet hung and the array of Japanese-themed gifts I received for Christmas were still in boxes when she passed away. I was too young to inherit anything more as far as anyone else was concerned. Certain items were taken back. Others, taken away before I even had a chance to move through the grief and realize that being 16 doesn’t mean I deserve nothing.
So, I kept what I had. I kept it through everything.
Through long cold nights where it was just my ferret Tanner and I, living in the back half of my little box Scion, few things mattered enough to me to invade what little space we had. But I carried three vases, a little soldier, and those final Christmas gifts with me everywhere I ended up.
Our red maple bonsai that I named Emma after one of her middle names, stayed with me until 2007 when after one final move from Texas to Utah, the little hydroponic system I setup to keep my bonsais alive, failed. They both died. And as a result, I changed the path of my entire life over reading between the lines of what it might mean that everything around me was suddenly changing… and failing.
It wasn’t until just before moving here, to Australia, that I attached myself to those objects once more. I chose to pack these momentous gifts away and leave them behind with most of the things I cherished through every change in my life. I regretted having already given away too much over the years, having spent too long having to decide what part of my life was good enough to fit into one car seat’s worth of space.
Just before moving, my oldest sister unboxed a large plate that had been on display throughout my childhood. It was a gift, given to my parents during their trip to Japan. The plate was decorative in nature and an obvious, hand-painted asian design.
“I’ve been keeping this for you,” she said.
Her tone was more or less that she wanted to get it out of her garage before she forgot about it entirely, but it meant so much more to me. It was the final piece to the remaining history of my Mom’s trip to Japan, and it was the first thing of hers ever given to me.
Unfortunately, it all went right back in a box. Off display. Tucked away and unseen now for over two years. These pieces, I remember. I’ve always remembered. But what it can do to you, to unleash a part of you that remembers all else so vividly, it all suddenly mattered. Right down to the possibility of walking under the same, golden branches on a side street of Tokyo.
Suddenly, I knew my Mom in a way I had never known her before. To be so young and have no real private, adult connection or conversation with my Mom before she passed away, I felt as though I didn’t know anything about her. She was my driver. She was a volunteer. She was simply… there. And that’s what I missed about her. But now it all made sense. Now it all had a connection I never knew existed.
As I sat, riding our final bullet train back to the city and finishing up the last words of the Neuromancer sci-fi series by William Gibson, everything made sense. Right down to the first time I attempted reading the book, there in my bright orange pants with the dragon, and all the way back to being able to see, in hindsight, my Mother’s own obsession with the Japanese. Their gardening and their culture wove through my life unknowingly as anything other than “home.”
With irony, I put the book down after reading the final page (written somewhere around 1982 and published in 1984), and on that final page it said that the two main characters, tired from all Tokyo had put them through, retired to the Tokyo Hyatt… just above a park.