Travel, Teach, Live in Japan
On Sunday’s I escaped for the day and rode my scooter high into the hills behind Tokuyama. There the noises of the city disappeared, and the bamboo forests tempered the heat. I stopped and watched the farmers working in the rice paddies, which in the evening would come alive with a chorus of frogs.
On one of these rides the paved road I traveled turned into dirt and then became a narrow path dodging between paddies. Soon, I wound my way into a dark forest. It was exciting to see land I had never laid eyes on, and I had no idea where I might end up. Suddenly the path ended and before me stood a beautiful Buddhist temple. Its ancient frame settled comfortably into the earth. I walked through its vacant rooms until I came to the rear entrance. There I found a well with a single wooden ladle hanging by it. I dipped the ladle into the water and drank. It was cool and refreshing. The forest was still and calm.
As I was preparing to leave, I noticed an elderly woman sitting just outside the temple writing. I waved, and she waved back, so I approached her.
“This is a very beautiful temple,” I said. “Do you know how old it is?”
“Very old,” she replied in broken English. “Maybe five hundred years.”
She put aside her writing and peered into my eyes. The intensity of her stare frightened me a bit.
“Come,” she said, “I show you something.” I followed her to a traditional Japanese house. Her home was made of wood. The roof beams curled out from underneath the thick wooden shingles on top. I took off my shoes and put them alongside hers before entering her home. We entered a room that had at its center a foot high table and in a corner a vase of flowers. Nothing else. As an admirer of simplicity I felt I was in the hands of a master. She beckoned me to sit down near the table and left the room. In a moment she returned with a photo album. She delicately opened the album. Her gentle loving movements sent shivers through me.
“This only possession I have that survived the war. My parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins killed in the bombing raids. This all I have,” she repeated. “Except for husband. My children gone to the cities.”
She opened the photo album.
“Many years before war, this me.”
A young girl stared out at me. She was innocently happy in the black and white photo.
“We foolish young girls. This my husband.”
A proud young fellow in a business suit stared self-assuredly into the lens of the camera.
“He hard worker.”
She paused a moment staring at the photos.
“Everything was blown up. This house,” she said pointing to a well built structure in another photograph, “and everything in and around it. Before it was blown up, I buried this album in the front yard. I dug a hole with my hands and buried it in a gift box.”
She closed the album. In its cover was a gash.
“Bomb shrapnel,” she said pointing to the cover. “I was so happy that it didn’t go all the way through and damage the photographs.”
I remained silent, gazing at the photos.
“The planes came over and dropped the bombs on Tokuyama. All of the children were told to leave, but I was eighteen, so I stayed and worked in one of the manufacturing plants. I buried this album because I knew that one day the planes would come and bomb our house. Then it happened as I had thought. We were told we must go because the planes were coming to bomb the plant. I wanted to go home, but the soldiers ordered us up here to this temple. Many of us stayed here sleeping on the floor. It was fun and exciting until the bombs started falling. When the bombs stopped falling, we went back to see what was left. Many buildings were left standing, but our entire neighborhood had vanished. It took me an entire day to find my street, and then locate where my house had been. I dug three or four holes before I found this album.”
The old woman watched me carefully as I studied the photos.
“It is in sincerity that you find self confidence,” she said.
She closed the album and walked out of the room, returning a few minutes later with a small sheet of paper.
“Take this with you.”
“What is it?”
“I’m afraid I can’t read Japanese.”
“Find someone to read it to you.”
I put the paper in my pocket.
“My husband needs me now,” she said graciously.
The sun had set and dark shadows were starting to appear as I rode out of the forest.
The next day I took my poem to Yoko, one of our teaching assistants, and asked if she would translate it.
She looked at the poem.
“It is very sad,” she said.
“Please tell me what it says.”
“I will write it out for you. Can I take it with me? I will bring it tomorrow. I want to make sure I use the correct English words.”
The next morning in class I waited for her to arrive. Each time the door opened I thought it was her. Finally she arrived.
She read me her translation of the poem.
“From pain and sorrow all around
There’s no escape, I fear.
To mountain wilds should I retreat
There also I should hear
The cry of hunted deer.”