2011 - Life in Japan and Coração

2011 – Life in Japan and Coração

I moved to Japan on New Year’s Day. Arriving in Japan to live for an indefinite span felt different from going to visit for several weeks. During my first trip there was a sense of a mission to fulfill which was clear cut: go to the homeland of my wife, meet her family and friends, create a mutually respectful bond, experience the foreign country, and have fun.

On this second trip however, which was my move to Japan, the mission was not as clearly defined and with less emphasis on my having fun. I was going there to be husband and companion to my wife who at this time was about 7-8 months pregnant with our first child. We knew our baby had a chromosome disorder called Trisomy 18[1], which told us that our baby’s life would likely not be a long and healthy one. The diagnosis was grim from early on, however we felt that there was a reason for him having entered our life, so Yoko and I had determined to be the best parents for him that we could be and enjoy our time with him in utero as much as possible.

January in the Japanese city of Takarazuka is mild compared to that of Brooklyn, New York. I was pleasantly surprised to see some garden flora surviving throughout the entire winter. It was also kind of nice to me that the weather outdoors did not feel particularly harsh, rather more like chilly New York spring weather. However, indoors was another story. I was unpleasantly surprised with how difficult it was to escape the chilliness of the season. Central heating is not very common in most of Japan outside of the cold northern regions. In the house we had a space heater which plugged right into a gas socket. This kept a small vicinity quite warm, but there was a sense that we ought to use this equipment moderately, and it did little to warm the other rooms in the house anyway. We also had two hot-cold air-conditioners in the home which we used quite sparingly as those tended to raise electric bills rapidly. 

One of the orders of business I attended to early on was learning to drive in Japan. Several factors came into play. The Japanese drive on the opposite side of the road than we do in the USA and the driver’s side is on the opposite side as well. Turning at intersections took some getting used to because of this. Some of the road signs were unfamiliar. And there were three more significant concerns for me 1) my wife was pregnant with our precious baby, and it was my responsibility to drive us to the hospital regularly for her check-ups 2) I was driving my father-in-law’s car, so I felt I had to be extra careful, and 3) the streets were often quite narrower than what I was accustomed to. In other words, driving in Japan was stressful and required a lot of focus. Add to this tiredness, driving against the sun, or inclement weather and one can see why I was not thrilled with this task. Also, as I was partly responsibility for the car now, and thus did my share of keeping it clean and functional, which was challenging during the occasional dust storms that passed through. 

On the afternoon of Friday, March 11th, I was out taking a walk by myself near the local Muko River. I enjoyably walked along the semi-artistically designed cement structures built along the banks, typical of Japanese rivers. Afterwards, I moseyed on home to our apartment building in a light-hearted mood. When I entered, Yoko was in a bit of a panic. Something had happened, and it was taking me some time to understand what it was. TV news seemed ultra-serious. There were various alerts and reports and the strained faces of reporters and people on camera. An earthquake had struck northeast Japan[2]. No, it wasn’t too close, maybe 500 miles away, but they were saying that it might set off a tsunami in which case the rivers could swell and since we were only about a quarter mile from Muko River, we were not necessarily beyond being directly affected. My father-in-law lived in a riskier location and so now he was coming to spend the night. What the hell’s going on?

News of the disastrous tsunami started sweeping in and then we began to hear about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster and the reactor meltdowns. As all of this was in Japanese, I was only grasping bits and pieces of what was known of the ongoing story. Mainly, I knew all that I needed to know which is that Japan was in trouble, and it was time to buckle down and chant some serious Daimoku (Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) to overcome this disaster. Hearing about all the pain, suffering, and struggles going on around us was extra hard to take in when Yoko was about to bust with our firstborn. 

A lot of online communications took place in those first few days following the earthquake and tsunami. I communicated via Facebook and email letting everyone know that we were ok. Some well-meaning friends strongly insisted that we should move back to the US. That did not really cross our minds at the time as our region and our living circumstances were not altered much beyond the constant news coverage and general concern, fear, and anxiety that all of Japan was dealing with. We felt protected and safe.

Just under two weeks after the earthquake, Yoko and I had our own personal ordeal. On the morning of March 24th, I drove Yoko to Osaka University Hospital. We were there all day. After Yoko was admitted into the labor room, I was in quite an uncomfortable state of waiting. We both knew that our son Coração had a chromosome disease and had prepared ourselves for both the worst as well as the best (whatever that might be). I was alternately in the waiting room, the labor room, walking around outside in a pleasant park area, going to the convenience store and at some points, having a meal or two. I was fortunate to have had the supportive presence of Yoko’s aunt and her sister Akiko for some time. All the while looming outside the hospital window like a cosmic onlooker was the back face of the iconic Tower of the Sun (Jp. Taiyō no Tō[3]), a mysterious relic from the 1970’s World’s Fair hosted in Osaka.

The day dragged on. I passed the time chanting for the best of outcomes and coloring in a mandala coloring book. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Yoko was very much in labor and deep in a world of her own. I felt like a lonely sailor in the thick of a stormy sea very much at the mercy of the Universe itself. It was getting late, and Akiko had to return home. I was alone in the waiting room. Eventually I was called into the labor room for the final stretch. Her labor pains had been gradually intensifying throughout the day. From my perspective it was painfully slow. Watching my wife in labor was torturous. She seemed to forget the agonizing waves of contractions from one to the next, but I sure didn’t. I dreaded how much longer this would go on before the baby came through. It was just awful especially feeling so uncertain about the baby’s condition.

I was in a panic, squeezing Yoko’s hand and telling her that I loved her. 

“Everything will be alright. You’re doing amazing!” I encouraged her. 

And she was. As the mysterious and haunting delivery was happening, I began chanting out loud so that others in the room could hear me. If only I could muster the courage to chant out loud in front of others, then the baby will be fine. It was a primal, if not superstitious thought. It’s difficult to describe just how powerless I felt. 

At long last, there was a final contraction as her body slowly released her precious baby that she had nurtured and loved so dearly for the previous 10 months[4]. I could sense something was wrong from the reactions of the attending nurses. What’s wrong??? I screamed inside of myself. They were looking for a heartbeat . . . The face of the baby did not have the right color and complexion and the sad moment of truth was that there was no crying. Not a peep. That couldn’t be right . . . They never did find that heartbeat, try as they did.

My own heartbreak and denial were extremely difficult to bear. But much worse was hearing the agonizing cries of Yoko when she realized her precious baby was not living and there was nothing that we could do to change that. My sobbing could no longer be held back. It was the rawest human moment I had ever experienced. I felt naked, exposed, heartbroken, disappointed, powerless, and super sad all at the same time.

Following this surreal quasi-nightmare, I had to go for a walk. It was late and the room was hot. I couldn’t just stay there and stare at Yoko. What on Earth is one to do at a time like this? It was nearing 1am, the hospital was partially darkened. For some reason I walked downstairs with the delivery doctor who had been Yoko’s obstetrician all these months and who we had come to regard as a friend of sorts. My Japanese was still in its early stages, but I was comprehending quite a bit by then. In a very sullen and perhaps male coolness we descended in the elevator. He could sense my tumultuous emotions. He spoke to me with as much sincerity as his profession would allow him. 

“Watashi mo kanashii (I am also sad) . . . ”. 

The words seem simple and almost insignificant, yet I felt a wave of compassion from him as he said them. In his career he must have come across such experiences time and again and must have adapted to such circumstances by detaching emotionally. This time his emotions were involved, and his humanity could not help but be stirred. 

I wandered to the top level of the hospital’s outdoor parking garage. The air was chilly and there were few cars. I mustered my energy and chanted for a few moments in the loudest lion’s growl from the pit of my stomach. It was as if each roar was vowing to the Universe that this turn of events would not stop us. This will not slow me down. It will not put us into a prolonged depression. We will continue to live a joyful and victorious life. This loss was great indeed, but you just wait and see. I felt like an animal in the jungle and my primal life force was resurrected with each soul-piercing roar of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. My socially instilled sense to be quiet and not disturb others was forgotten momentarily.

I went back into the hospital to Yoko. She had been mercifully dozing. There was no fitting place for me to spend the night. I told her that I was going home to sleep for a while and that I’d be back in the morning. The pre-dawn drive home between 4 and 5am was eerie and inescapably uncomfortable. When I got back to our chilly home, I listened to a recording that I kept of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers regarding the hero’s journey[5]. It was all I could think to do. Somehow, I fell asleep. 

The next morning, I spoke with Akiko. We cried on the phone together. She came over. We hugged and cried and made our way over to Yoko at the hospital. With each passing moment I could sense some important healing was happening although it certainly felt like it couldn’t happen quick enough. What to do now? There was no baby to take care of. There were seemingly tons of people who were awaiting the photos of our beautiful newborn baby boy. And then there was the issue of the cremation of the body and telling all of Yoko’s family and friends. And what about Yoko’s mental, emotional and physical health? It was all far too much to think about. All I or any of us could do was take things one day, one moment at a time.

That whole week was a blur of many emotions and sensations on all levels. There was much crying, expressing, connecting, and coming together as a family. We had cremated the body of Coração and were now facing the reality of somehow re-entering our day-to-day lives. I would soon continue to teach, and Yoko would resume her daily chores. 

Somehow, we found meaning throughout the turmoil to continue forward in high spirits. Neither of us liked nor wanted to feel down in the dumps for even one second longer than necessary, yet we realized the vital importance of going through the grieving process utterly and completely to move on with true freshness and vigor. Amazingly after one full week of mourning and squarely facing our reality, we both felt good. I was constantly chanting to be victorious in our lives and for the happiness of ourselves and all of humanity. I kept focusing on finding the best outcome in each situation.

Mom had been planning to come to Japan to see the baby. Now things were different. There was no baby to see and there was the scary memory of hearing about the terrible earthquake and tsunami so fresh in everyone’s mind. I was disappointed when Mom showed no clear commitment to visiting us in Japan. I understood that from her perspective, it would be easier not to take the trip. Yoko and I were determined to help her to realize how fun and good for her and for all of us the trip would be. She eventually relented and the tickets were booked. 

The time together with Mom was fun. Her style of travelling is more low-key than ours. As such, she was not necessarily gung-ho to see all the places we wanted to show her. She was content just spending time together with tasty food and coffee at our home. Nevertheless, we managed to have a few adventures together. Mom is a gardener and an April baby. So, it was wonderful fortune to have her towards the end of April at the perfect timing to see all the various and lovely cherry blossoms and other flowers in bloom. It seemed like a beautiful gift from the Universe or perhaps directly from Coração. Among the various benefits of Mom’s trip to Japan was that it gave her an opportunity to get to know Yoko’s side of the family in person, a priceless memory and treasure for our whole family.

While adapting to life in the mansion[6] apartment complex that we lived in, I got to know some of the older men who appeared to run the show around there. They had something akin to a mafia vibe although they were seniors and looked harmless enough. They associated in cliques and there was clearly some hierarchical power structure. It was made clear to me who was top dog – a man in his 70’s named Ozaki-san. He had grown up in the school of hard knocks and certainly must have been involved in his share of scrapes. One day, after attending a community meeting, Ozaki-san caught me at the exit with a few of his cronies. After we exchanged some polite greetings amongst the group, he felt the need to jump on the floor and do several push-ups apparently to show me that he could likely kick my ass despite his age if I tried anything funny. I left with this feeling of pity mingled with discomfort. I guess I was flattered that he thought I could be a threat to his carefully maintained dominion and sad that a man of his age should still live in a fear-based structure like that. Obtaining any political power was the farthest thing from my mind, but I also had no intention of showing him extra respect, no more than any other person. Anyway, before long Ozaki-san began to trust me in his way. His opportunistic mind saw in me an opportunity to advance his political-social status. And so, it was through him that I obtained my first gig while living in Japan. 

On Thursday May 26th, I performed downtown at Takarazuka Hotel to a room full of politicians[7]! The performance location was a large room in the hotel which must have been used for official meetings and such. I had a low but large stage all to myself. I prepared a set list of about 6 songs, most of them in Japanese. My song choices were a little bizarre, but the situation was also bizarre. For me it was a chance to begin performing in Japan and to get my name (or face anyway) out there. For Ozaki-san, he would become known amongst his circles as the guy who could bring book that unique American musician. We both stood to gain from this one. At the end of the night, I took a photo with Ozaki-san and the mayor of Takarazuka city.

There was a young woman who Yoko was friendly with, Eriko. She was an amazingly talented keyboard player and a socialite who had the ability to bring people together and find occasions to perform. By spring, she was playing with an all-girl quartet named Questions. They cut their teeth by playing gigs right out on the street in Osaka and Kobe. They were cool and flexible and loved to involve other musicians. I was one of the other musicians who played with them. Generally, I would be invited to play some tunes with them and welcomed to play a few on my own as well. On Sunday June 26th, I joined them for a show at a café-bar in Kobe. The show itself was very cool and enjoyable. However, on the train ride there I remembered how little I missed lugging a guitar, amplifier, and music stand around to perform. I was also enduring a slight headache and hemorrhoids that day. It was very hot and humid and I had a hard time keeping my spirits up. I felt quite taxed by the time I got home and thought I can’t do this more than once a month - if that.

Once again, I joined Questions for a show at the bar Covent Garden[8] in Osaka on Saturday July 23rd. They rocked hard, great vocals and groove. The group consisted of Eriko (the musical backbone of the band) playing keyboard, two percussion players Ayumi and Shoko, and one lead singer (who doubled as a third percussionist), Mame. Even without a guitarist or bassist, they made a lot of noise and sounded great! It was my honor and pleasure to join them occasionally.

In late August we had a visitor. My former bandmate, the drummer from Plush[9], Tony Cortes stayed with us for about 10 days. It was like having an energetic big kid with us who was tirelessly seeking adventure. During his visit we did various things. We visited Toei Kyoto Studio Park (a theme park modeled after Japan’s Edo era), Tsūtenkaku (a tower and well-known landmark in Osaka), and a farm in the countryside among other locations. We ate at various places with various people, sang karaoke with friends, performed as a duet at a Questions gig, and even jammed on “Highway to Hell” in a music studio with Eriko and a few others. When he left us at the end of the month, Yoko and I needed a minute to catch our breaths.

September weather in Japan is often beautiful. Great for walking around. By now I was teaching English in three main ways: (1) to private students through John & Yoko’s English Garden, (2) to a small groups of boys and girls at neighboring John & Miki’s English Club, and (3) as an English teacher at a local small storefront English conversation school called Cha Cha’s (located nearby Sakesagawa Hankyuu train station) where I taught both adults and children. 

Yoko and I were preparing for our American wedding party set to take place during our upcoming US trip. There were invites to send out, and arrangements to be made. I was chanting every day, often for long stretches. I was attending local Soka Gakkai Buddhist meetings (in Japanese) as well as SGI[10] Buddhist meetings in nearby cities (in English). My involvement in SGI Buddhist activities kept me busy in terms of studying to prepare for them, traveling to them, and then reflecting on how to apply the teachings into my life. My Buddhist practice was a crucial and challenging element in empowering me and urging me to make the most of each interaction and opportunity that crossed my path while living in Japan. 

I would often spend time reaching out to and connecting with friends and family back home and in other parts of the world. Amidst the various goings on at the time were the local connections in Japan. Foremost among these being with my father-in-law Tsunao and Yoko’s sister Akiko and her two boys (our nephews). In an effort to create family unity, to have a more enjoyable living experience in Japan, and to fulfill a cherished dream I was diligently studying Japanese every single day. 

There was much preparation to be done both for our arrival in the USA as well as for our three-week-plus absence from Japan. I was occupying myself on the one hand with invites and planning for our wedding party and gatherings in Brooklyn. On the other hand, I was preparing material for my English and guitar students to work on while I was away. Concurrently I was working on a bilingual Buddhist faith experience to share at meetings, first in Japan and then in the US.

I was dealing with various bodily aches and pains especially concerning my back. My ways to alleviate these included stretching, yoga, exercise, prayer, and positive self-talk. I was really starting to face the music regarding how vitally important excellent health would be in leading the type of joyful and happy life in which all my dreams and goals could come true.

By the time we arrived back in the US we found that Occupy Wall Street was underway and that the influential pioneer of Apple computers and technology Steve Jobs had passed away. I attended a local Flatlands District SGI discussion meeting on Saturday November 18th (incidentally one of the most significant dates on the SGI calendar, known as Soka Gakkai Founding Day). It was a large and warm gathering including several familiar faces. In front of the assembled group, I gave my faith experience which included all that we had been through involving Coração. It was both an emotional and cathartic thing to do with my American friends in faith. 

The next day was our wedding party! We welcomed so many friends and family in a casual setting. Dave Evans was the emcee. Jeremy Batchelor the deejay. Victoria Vasilakis filmed it. Several musician friends played including Bob Henson on drums. Paulie Z did a set of songs for everyone. Yoko and I danced in our goofy way. Mom invited people onto the dance floor with unusual fervor. After the wedding party we had a few days of downtime before we helped host Thanksgiving at Mom’s house. Since we were in Brooklyn for only a brief time, this too was a special occasion, and many friends came by.

As I had English students awaiting my return to Japan, I left the US as planned. Yoko however had details to attend to regarding her green card process and so she stayed on a few more weeks without me. Landing in Japan and going back to our apartment there by myself was a bit lonesome. Yes, I had lots of family and friends there, but there was a strange quietness to everything. Not only had I just returned from noisy New York City, but also from a whirlwind trip which involved lots of excitement and merry energy. Also, NYC was just gearing up for Christmas season when I left, and the festive decorations could be seen popping up everywhere. However, now back in Takarazuka, things were quiet and calm (as ever). The weather was warmer, there were almost no festive holiday season decorations (only very commercial installments in shopping malls and shop windows), and my wife (with whom I just celebrated a wedding with) was on the other side of the globe. I had to reacquaint myself to Japan life with just my own level of Japanese, and my limited cooking skills (especially in a Japanese kitchen). Fortunately, Otousan[11] came by and taught me how to prepare a simple fish stock soup with vegetables which helped. 

I was desperate for some holiday cheer and searched nearby stores for decorations. I obtained a few paper ones and hung them on the wall in the apartment. I walked 45 minutes to an electronics store hoping they might possibly carry Christmas lights but no such luck. They barely understood what I was asking for. To assuage my longing for lights there was one event which helped. Towards the beginning of December, the city of Kobe hosts an event called the Kobe Luminarie[12]. I attended by myself and joined a crowd in the street as we walked parade-like through the streets of a Kobe enjoying a light show like none I had ever seen. The evening was mild, and the lights were not specifically meant for Christmas so the vibe was quite different than something one might experience walking through Manhattan in December, but still there was something magical and mystical about it which stirred my soul and helped relieve my homesickness. 

On December 22, my 31st birthday I had a chance to dress up as Santa Claus for children in the party room of our apartment complex. I brought my guitar and sang several Christmas songs for everyone. The vibe was different from anything I had ever experienced before in terms of Christmas, but being with smiling children and adults was worth sporting the uncomfortable costume. And besides, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate my birthday!

My sister-in-law Akiko became sick around this time and for a night or two I watched and helped feed my two nephews Haru and Jushiro as their mother was in the hospital for a few days. Yoko arrived back at our apartment in Japan on Christmas Eve. She was exhausted and so our Christmas was less than festive, but besides having a seasonal case of the blues I was counting my blessings. My wife was home safe from our wonderful and meaningful US trip. Akiko was on the mend as I was deepening my bond with my nephews. And I now had a deeper sense of being capable of spending time on my own in Japan.

 


[2] Learn more about 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Tōhoku_earthquake_and_tsunami

[3] Learn more about the Tower of the Sun: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_the_Sun

[4] Considering Coração’s unique condition we decided to adhere to an extended due date.

[5] Learn more about Joseph Campbell and the Power of Mythhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Power_of_Myth

[6] In Japan the word MAN-SHŌN, while borrowed from the English word “mansion” refers to a somewhat upscale apartment complex. They can range from small (housing maybe 12 units) to huge housing several hundred apartments. We lived in a huge one.

[9] Plush was the Stone Temple Pilots tribute band which I played bass with intermittently between 2002-2004.

[10] As I mentioned in previous chapters, I was a member of the SGI (Soka Gakkai International). The origin of the SGI came from the Soka Gakkai, an organization based in Japan. Any Soka Gakkai organizations located outside of Japan are part of the SGI. The English-speaking meetings I attended were hosted by a sub-branch of the SGI called KIG (Kansai International Group).

[11] Otousan means Dad in Japanese.

[12] Kobe Luminarie is a light spectacle event that began December 1995 to celebrate overcoming the Great Hanshin earthquake that devastated the area that same year. Learn more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobe_Luminarie

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