By Lydia LaFleur
Two days after I arrived in Tokyo, my son Chris, daughter-in-law Keiko and Feli, the housekeeper, and I drove to the country house in Karuizawa, an upscale mountain resort, two and a half hours by car from Tokyo but only one hour by bullet train. Miles upon miles of larch and birch trees in a plateau, with Mt. Asama and its active volcano on the horizon. Named the Japanese Alps, but that’s an overstatement; they’re not all that tall. When I asked Chris which clothes I should take to the country, he said to take all of them. I wondered, until he said he thought I knew what the schedule would be, that I would be spending the whole three weeks in the country; he would have to go to Tokyo on business a few of those days, and Keiko, because of her jewelry business would come up only on the weekends, but Feli would be there all the time, so there would always be someone there with me. Here all along I’d been thinking I would spend some time in Tokyo and get together for tea or dinner with some of the women who had lived with me years ago when they came to study English. What in the world would I do for three whole weeks with no paved roads to walk on and, even worse, no NPR?
Their unprepossessing house was built Western style, not Japanese. But it’s made entirely of wood, something my son had insisted on after living most of the year in a house made completely of cement in the heart of Tokyo. In Karuizawa there was only one other house within distance. I could see that the land surrounding the house had not been tended to in some time; it was covered with tall weeds and bushes (all cleared during my stay). As my son walked me to the house warning me of tree roots and other obstacles on the ground, he pointed out the large hoof prints of a wild boar that had been enjoying the wild food he gathered there. “Don’t worry, Mother, he only comes at night and never into the house!” The house was very comfortable and homey; on the main floor, a large kitchen with dining area and with all modern conveniences, a living room, family room with grand piano, TV, and wood stove, so needed in the winter, a large bathroom, and a nicely decorated bedroom with twin beds where I would be sleeping; the bathroom was not as close by as I had hoped, but Chris reassured me saying the hall light would be kept on the whole night. Upstairs were two more bedrooms, a tatami room that could serve as a bedroom and a small bathroom. In the downstairs bathroom were the washing machine and dryer built into the wall and a large bath tub and shower stall. The Japanese are very big on taking baths; all family members use the same hot bath water in which to relax, but they wash themselves before getting into the tub. I never did cotton to that ritual. Three spigots controlling the water were attached to a rod, but I never did figure out which ones were for the shower alone. I would find out several nights later how unfortunate that would be.
The next day while I was in the family room reading the book “Cutting For Stone” on my daughter’s Kindle, Keiko introduced me to their sphere shaped robot that without supervision glides across the floor cleaning up all the dust particles. I was fascinated watching it retrace its steps as if it knew that some particular areas were not completely clean yet. It went all through the house cleaning as it went along, with its circular rubber padding preventing damage to the furniture it encountered. I had read the Japanese have been innovating in the development of robots, so I was surprised when Chris told me this robot was American made.
From my previous stays in Japan, my son knew I missed my computer for its email and the New York Times obituaries, so he found an extra computer and set the programs up for me. Feli found a mat so I could do my daily yoga exercises in the family room. Still I felt sort of bereft – something important in my life was missing – listening to programs in English (CNN did televise a half hour news program in English but that was hardly satisfying). What I missed was National Public Radio which I listen to every day. So wanting me to feel at home, my son figured out how to get NPR on the Kindle. True I now got programs broadcast 12 hours earlier because of the time difference, but I got acquainted with those that come on in New York while I’m still asleep.
In the afternoons, I went for long walks with my son or with Feli. I inherited the cane that Keiko’s father had used when he was alive. We encountered a number of Western style ostentatious houses off roads that were paved, but seldom met up with a car. The air was oh, so fresh, and cool, not like in Tokyo which was suffering from a heat wave of close to 100 degrees. I loved these walks. Now relaxing into the tempo of country life, I no longer had a hankering for Tokyo. In the evenings, we enjoyed the delicious meals that Feli cooked. As my granddaughter Sarah said, ”Feli can make anything taste good.” Feli is from the Philippines and has been with the family since Sarah was a baby which was almost thirty years ago. She is a religious Catholic, very wise, capable and compassionate. I loved the long conversations we had on our walks, discussing all kinds of topics.
But not all was perfect in Paradise! For days now I had been afflicted with constipation, a condition I usually suffer from when traveling, but this time, it was monstrous. I had brought magnesium tablets with me, but unfortunately they were citrated and didn’t work. When Keiko came on the weekend, I told her of my condition. She said the Japanese remedy she knew from experience was overly effective; I said, “that’s just what I need. Otherwise, you’ll have to take me to the hospital.” She immediately drove into town to get some. My big mistake was not to wait till bedtime to take the two tablets. Instead I ingested them as soon as she returned which was about four in the afternoon. I woke up suddenly about twelve hours later, but too late to make it to the bathroom in time. I was a holy mess and so were the bedsheets. Removing my nightgown I rushed to the bathroom and tried turning on the shower, but as I said before, I never did get the spigots straight and so no shower, only running water coming from one of the faucets. I knelt down on the cement floor and proceeded to wash all of me including my hair. I was relieved nobody upstairs heard me. Thank God I had brought another nightgown and that my room had twin beds. So after removing the soiled sheets and cleaning a small spot on the mattress with Wash ‘n Dry that I had brought with me, I just took over the other bed and went back to sleep. The next day I told Feli what had happened; this did not phase her at all. She put everything into the washing machine. The remedy had really worked! The Japanese are very gifted at improving not only on existing electronics but on constipation remedies as well.
One of the highlights of my visit was connecting with my granddaughter Emma who came to the country house one weekend. After graduating from Occidental College in California, she returned to Japan over two years ago to pursue a career in singing. I enjoyed hearing her weekly radio program in which she interviews people in the various arts and also seeing her weekly appearances on a TV news hour in which she visits various restaurants in Japan. Even though the programs were in Japanese, I loved hearing and seeing her so poised and charming.
I have always admired Keiko’s mother Yoko and fascinated by her life story. She also has a house in Karuizawa, Japanese style, only a fifteen minute drive from theirs. During the war she took her small children, Keiko and Hiro, to this country house, to escape the bombings of Tokyo by U.S. planes. Her house in Tokyo is almost within shouting distance to her daughter Keiko’s, but she spends the summer months in Karuizawa with an around the clock caretaker. She met her future husband, Kiichi Miyazawa, before the war when they were on the same boat going to a student conference in California. When I first learned that her father had been a Shakespearean scholar, I felt it incongruous that someone of such a different culture and language would make that his career. And I was impressed hearing how widely read Yoko was in English literature, both the classics and the 20th century authors. She had studied English in school and developed her skill at it years later spending time in Washington when her husband was Japanese Foreign Minister. She is a very strong and private person who stayed in the background even when her husband became Prime Minister. She is now 94 years old and in good health except for some dementia and serious hearing loss. When Sarah and I were last together in Tokyo five years ago and were saying goodbye to her, tears rolled down her cheeks, unusual for this very private woman; she felt bad because she could no longer understand when we spoke in English. She said at our parting that she would take English lessons and has been ever since at a senior center in Tokyo. This time when I went to visit her, she didn’t remember me asking me in English who I was, and when Keiko explained in a very loud voice in Japanese, she smiled at me. For the next fifteen minutes or so, I wrote on a large pad of paper questions and remarks and I was surprised at how clearly she read them in English and responded to me in perfect English. On my last visit the night before my flight home, she recognized me and greeted me warmly and using the writing pad again we continued our conversation in English.
I had never before stayed away from home this long, but I was sorry when it came time to leave this idyllic life and looked forward to returning next summer. But before then, I would be returning in November to see Emma make her stage debut in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along.”