Thursday, March 23: In late February, I was offered a job teaching EFL to Japanese university students in Japan beginning on March 28 (the term actually begins April 7 and ends August 1). I’ve opted to extend my stay for one week, until August 8, so I can travel around Japan for a week.
I’ll be living in Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture. This is part of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama. Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan by population (3.7 million), lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu, and is today one of Japan’s major ports.
I leave on Monday morning, March 27, and will arrive at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Tuesday, March 28 at 3:55 p.m.
I found this long video (24 minutes) about an apartment for Westgate teachers in Sagamihara City. It’s possible this will be my apartment building!
I’ve been reading a number of practical books to get ready for my time in Japan. Here’s my PRACTICAL reading list:
Living Abroad in Japan by Ruth Kanagy (Moon Handbooks)
These are books I’m taking along on my trip:
Japanese phrase book & dictionary by Berlitz Publishing Co.
Tokyo: 29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City by John H. Martin and Phyllis G. Martin
I always love to read novels and travelogues set in a country to which I’m traveling. Over the years, and in the month prior to my upcoming trip, I’ve read the following novels and memoirs. If I wrote a review on Goodreads, I’ve included it here.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Hiroshima by John Hersey
Crawling at Night. Though this novel takes place in New York City, it tells the story of a Japanese sushi chef. It was written by a friend of mine, Nani Power.
When the Emperor was Divine by Juli Otsuka
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: I enjoyed this book about Ruth, a “stuck” author, who cannot seem to finish the memoir of her mother’s death. Instead, she happens upon a diary that has washed up on the shore of the island where she lives with her husband. The diary is written by 16-year-old Nao, a Japanese girl who grew up in Sunnyvale, CA but had to move back to Tokyo when her father lost his job after the dot.com bubble burst. In Tokyo, she is subjected to harassment by her classmates; in addition, she has to deal with her father’s multiple failed suicide attempts. Nao is writing the diary to tell her great-grandmother Jiko’s story, but she ends up not really completing that mission, as the diary is mostly focused on her own life. Jiko, a Buddhist nun, has lived to the ripe age of 104 and has a strong influence on Nao’s life. Ruth, the author who finds the diary, gets caught up in Nao’s story and worries she might have been killed in the 2011 tsunami. There are interesting twists with time and quantum physics and multiple & parallel worlds toward the end, which makes the story even more fascinating. I learned a little something about quantum physics, which seems way out of my league, but the author made the subject accessible. I enjoyed the book immensely.
The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd: I enjoyed this book which is written as journal entries and letters. A young Scotswoman, Mary Mackenzie, sails to China in 1903 to marry a military attache in Peking; her marriage is unsatisfying, and when she has a love affair with a Japanese nobleman, her daughter is taken from her and she becomes an outcast from the European expat community. Two years after arriving in China, she ends up in Japan, where she lives for 37 years, only sporadically seeing her married Japanese lover, yet having a son by him. She is open about her struggles and her status as a “fallen woman,” yet she still can never resist her lover, despite his taking her Japanese-looking son from her. If the child had looked white and European, the child would have been able to stay with his mother. Since he looks Japanese, he is sent off to be raised by a Japanese family, as the lover is already married with his own family. This is a story about a woman’s survival, resilience, and enduring love, both for a man and for a country. I found this line, written in 1942, to be particularly resonant: “There is nothing like living in a country as an enemy alien to really thin down the roster of your friends.”
Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto: I enjoyed this quiet book about Yocchan, a young woman trying to create a life for herself after her much-loved musician father is found dead in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. She moves into a small apartment across the street from a bistro where she works in Shimokitazawa, in an attempt to establish some independence for herself, when her bereaved mother asks to move in with her. Though living with her mother is not exactly what Yocchan has in mind, she can’t turn her mother down. Yocchan’s daily life is like a meditation: she revels in her repetitive tasks in the bistro, walks in the neighborhood, and engagement with the local shopkeepers. She comes to fully appreciate her mom and her now-deceased father. She derives pleasure from watching people and how they eat; she believes a person’s relationship with food reveals nuances of character. The title of the book, Moshi Moshi, is “hello” in Japanese when talking on the phone; it reflects Yocchan’s obsession with her father’s phone, which he inadvertently left behind on the day he died. She has recurring dreams that her father is trying to reach her by phone, as if he has some unfinished business with Yocchan and her mother, some last message he wants to impart. The book is like a Buddhist meditation on life – quiet yet revealing and, ultimately, satisfying.
Here are books I’ve read about the shameful period in U.S. history when we put the Japanese into internment camps during WWII.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford: How ironic that I’ve been reading this book as the Donald Trump campaign is raging here in America. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is first and foremost a story about love and family, but it is set in 1942 Seattle during the unsettling time after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese-American families were rounded up and put into internment camps because Americans feared there were spies among them. Though told they were being imprisoned “for their own safety,” they were in fact treated just as Trump today would have all minorities treated: walled-off, separated and denied rights. Although the Japanese were not methodically murdered or used in horrific scientific experiments as the Jews were under Hitler, their homes and belongings were taken from them and they were forced to live in camps under armed guard for the duration of the war.
The protagonist, Henry, is a Chinese-American whose father is consumed by the Japanese atrocities in China. His father’s obsession with the Japanese as enemies, and the fear that Henry might be misidentified as Japanese, leads his father to insist on Henry wearing an “I am Chinese” button. Henry attends an all-white school on scholarship and is continually bullied by the white students for being different. When Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, appears at school, Henry and Keiko strike up a friendship that is strained not only by Henry’s family’s fears, but by the unsettling historic events around them. I found the book disturbing but also redeeming. While living through our current unsettling political times, I can only hope that we won’t repeat this dishonorable period in U.S. history.
The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: This book seemed so promising, but in the end, I felt it just didn’t deliver. I’d say my star rating is more of a 3.5 than a 3. This story of a love affair between a Japanese man, Ichimei, who spent much of WWII in a Japanese internment camp in the USA, and a Jewish woman, Alma, whose parents perished in WWII, just skimmed the surface. For such a love affair, one that Alma supposedly counted as the love of her life, she couldn’t make the leap to give up her wealth and her station in life to marry a Japanese man. The parallel story of Irina, a care worker at Lark House nursing home, and Seth, Alma’s grandson, isn’t all that intriguing either. I agree with another reviewer who said the story seemed to be hurriedly written. There was more telling than showing, and not much dialogue, and it just seemed generally without structure or deep feeling. I expected more from Isabel Allende; overall I found it disappointing.
Finally, I’ve read a number of books about Zen Buddhism.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki
Discover Zen: A Practical Guide to Personal Serenity by David Fontana
The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism by Jean Smith
I’ve put quite a few books on my Kindle and I’m also bringing along the following novels to read while I’m in Japan:
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
Snow Country by Yusanari Kawabata
Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata
How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway
I traveled to Kyoto, Japan in February, 2011, and found the short trip delightful. I loved the Buddhist temples, the ubiquitous vending machines, Japanese food, the cleanliness and efficiency of everything. You can read about my trip to Kyoto in earlier posts on this blog.
I’m excited about meeting my Japanese university students. I’m looking forward to exploring the Tokyo area (using my 29 Walks book), eating a lot of Japanese food, and hopefully finding time to visit Hiroshima at some point. I’m sure other expats in Japan will be able to advise me on other good places to visit. As I’ll be working 9-hour days during the weeks, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to wander, but I look forward to exploring as much as I can over the next four months. 🙂