Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Living In This Time Of Peace

Years ago, I found myself in a small village in Shikoku one evening, needing a place to stay. I had been counting on getting a room at a youth hostel in a nearby town, but when I got there, I found it was full. So I walked four miles to the next village where I had been told there was a temple that put people up. Unfortunately, the temple was no longer functioning as an inn and unless I felt like sleeping outside, I was out of luck. The mosquitoes were fierce that night and I was exhausted and desperate for a good night's sleep. A woman who worked at a shop near the temple told me there was another youth hostel in the next village. I walked there in the growing darkness, tired and hungry, my backpack tearing at my shoulders, blisters forming on my heels.

After a long search I found the youth hostel -- an old farmhouse in the countryside -- but was disappointed to see that there were no lights on. But before I could turn away, close to tears, the door opened and a little old lady in kimono stood there, obviously surprised to see me. She and her husband hadn't expected any guests, but yes, there was a room, though it was a bit musty. The room was dormitory style and perfectly fine, but when I asked the woman where the bathroom was, she frowned. "I'm sorry, but you won't be able to have a bath tonight."

My face fell. I was filthy; I had walked at least twelve miles and there wasn't a muscle in my body that didn't ache.

"It's just that we weren't prepared for you," she explained. "Normally, people make reservations and we're able to provide for them."

I said I understood and the woman left after telling me what time breakfast was served in the morning. As I was unpacking my backpack, there was a knock at my door. The woman was back. "You can have a bath," she told me. "It's been arranged." She pointed to the bathhouse, smiled at my effusive thanks, and left again.

I gathered up my furo dogu, literally 'bath tools': a small plastic basin, soap, shampoo and towel, and made my way across the garden to the small bathhouse. An elderly man in hakama waved to me; he seemed to be collecting twigs, stuffing them into a large basket.

I pulled open the bathhouse door and almost gasped: I could hardly believe how primitive it was, just a small tub in a tiny room with vents along the floor and ceiling. There were the customary spigots and wooden stool near the floor; in Japan, you clean yourself off before you get into the bath. The tub was full of warm water. As I bent down to test it, I saw the little old man outside carrying his basket of wood across the yard. Smoke billowed out from under the bathhouse and suddenly I realized what was happening: he was gathering wood to warm the water for my bath. I felt like crying: I'd had no idea of the inconvenience I had caused by showing up so late at night, needing a room and a bath.

At breakfast the next morning, I thanked them profusely and apologized for putting them to so much trouble. The old woman smiled. "Years ago, we went to England," she told me. "It was just after the war -- we were there for a conference -- and it was bitterly cold. When we got to our hotel and tried to run the bath, we were only able to get one inch of lukewarm water." The old man joined in: "We tried to explain and the staff understood us, but they told us that no one could get more hot water than that." His wife nodded. "We were so miserable! All we wanted was a bath." She patted my hand. "When I saw your face last night, I knew I couldn't let you down. I knew just how you felt, walking all day like that."

During breakfast, they came into the dining room to talk to me individually. They asked me what books I liked, how long I had been studying Japanese, why I had decided to study it. They wanted to know about my favorite Japanese authors, what I thought of Japanese politics, where I had been in Japan. I could barely answer half of their questions, but I was still grateful to be asked; I'd grown tired of being asked my shoe size, how old I was, whether I could use chopsticks or eat raw fish.

After breakfast, they showed me around their hostel. And gradually I began to see that this couple were extraordinary, not only because they were prepared to light the fire for an unexpected stranger's bath, but for many other reasons. Their house was filled to bursting with books in both Japanese and English, yet they spoke to me only in Japanese. In Japan, where English-speaking people are naturally keen to show off their skill, this was a first for me and an incredible honor: from the books on their shelves, I have no doubt that their English was superior to my Japanese. There were also photographs of them with dozens of different people from around the world, former guests of their hostel, and a book filled with thoughtful, heartfelt expressions of gratitude signed by people from dozens of countries. You were so wonderful, like my mother and father! wrote a girl from the Philippines. I loved delicious soup too much, Sachiko is excellent cook! wrote someone from Brazil. This guest book with its multinational comments was obviously an object of great pride and pleasure.

They stopped in front of a Delft plate; the old man reverently lifted it off the shelf. "We received this from a lovely Dutch boy. He visited us five years ago, and the next year he came back with his parents." His wife wiped a spot of dust off the plate. "They spoke Japanese. Do you know how that was possible?" I shook my head. "As children, they were both incarcerated in a detention center run by the Japanese in Indonesia." The old man gently set the plate back on the shelf. "They send us a Christmas card every year," he said proudly. "We count them as our dear friends."

"We are so fortunate," his wife added. "So fortunate to have lived to see this peace. To be able to meet young people like you, from foreign countries." She nodded once and tilted her head. "Please remember this: how fortunate you are -- how fortunate we all are -- to live now, in this time of peace."

When I left, greatly refreshed, relaxed, and well fed, I thanked them many times and yet it was not enough.

It will never be enough.

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34 comments:

Helen said...

Mary - what a beautiful post. I sit here with tears in my eyes, thinking about those lovely people and the impact they must have had on so many people.
I am sure that you will always remember their kindness and humility.
If we could all be a little more like them, the world really would be in peace......
Thanks for sharing.

Vijaya said...

Mary, I am in tears for such kindness ... and yes, I am grateful too.

Why is there no book of yours so that I may read it in peace, instead of having to turn on a machine?

Blythe said...

Oh Mary,
Every time I come you give me something wonderful. I hope maybe some of your generosity and goodness will rub off on me.

Postman said...

This is so grand. That a little couple there in Japan have such kindness in their hearts, and value peace as much as we ourselves like to think. An absolutely wonderful post, inspiring and heartwarming.

Robert the Skeptic said...

We encountered similar hospitality when we visited our daughter in Japan when she was teaching English there.

One day I strode out on my own and walked through her little village of Kitagata in Saga Prefecture, Kyushu. I peered into a grocery store and soon the door was held open for me. I bought some pastry (filled with bean curd, I later discovered) and left the store. I wondered why there were no other customers, then it dawned on me when they locked the door behind me... they had opened the store just to accommodate me, a Westerner. Gracious people, the Japanese.

Amber Lough said...

I'm nearly in tears here.

I wish you could go back, and take me with you.

Robin said...

That is so lovely. I have chills down my spine.

I love baths, and my son, Alex, makes fun of me. He tells me I'm not getting clean, because I'm lying around in my own dirty water. I tell him to shut up and pick some fleas off me before he's in big trouble. But I'm telling him about the Japanese custom of cleaning oneself off before the bath. He'll probably make me move to Japan.

Meg McKinlay said...

This is beautiful, Mary! A lovely story, perfectly written. I am looking forward to some Japanese baths soon, though probably of the more modern kind.

And I laughed when you mentioned the usual list of questions foreigners get. I can still reel off my shoe size in centimetres without a second thought.

Charles Gramlich said...

What a great story. I really enjoyed the delight of that piece. If such folks made up the bulk of the world we wouldn't be having wars.

Carolie said...

Oh dear, Mary...your stories are so poignant and beautiful and you write them so well! You've brought me to tears, again! I envy your experiences and your gifts.

Yes, I'm still alive, though still homeless -- we left Japan (me sobbing the whole time!) and made it to Virginia, spent a week and a half looking at houses, and are now visiting relatives in Minnesota and Nevada before heading back to Virginia. We two and the two cats will be living in a hotel for another month or so, unfortunately -- but I look forward to finally finding some down time during which I can write to you!

angryparsnip said...

Wonderful story...
I have traveled by myself quite often in Japan with no language skills beyond basic and I have only been met with kindness.
I am now trying to learn Japanese but goodness my brain is in a fog !

cheers...

Mary Witzl said...

Helen -- They really did have such a good impact on everyone that stayed with them, I'm sure. There are a lot of great people in Japan and I'm glad I've met so many, but that couple were something special.

Vijaya -- It's easy to forget how lucky we are to live in the time we live in, isn't it? That was the first time it struck me how lucky our generation had it.

And thank you for saying that about my book! I'll keep trying.

Blythe -- Thank you for saying that, but I'm squirming now: my generosity and goodness are poor things when I compare them to the superior stuff I see around me. Like that couple in Shikoku, for instance. They were an inspiration.

Postman -- Thank you for those kind words. I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but whenever I tried, I didn't feel I could do the couple justice. I STILL don't feel like I've done this justice, but it'll have to do as it is. That my readers got this really means a lot to me.

Robert -- I had that happen a few times myself, though usually not in the town where we lived (it's too hard to keep that sort of thing up all the time!) I encountered a lot of kindness (and occasional unkindness too) during my time in Japan, but those people I met in Shikoku were utterly memorable and special.

Amber -- Thank you. You've spent time in Japan too, haven't you? I wish I could go back myself.

Robin -- If Alex ever goes to Japan, I guarantee you, he won't come back. We wanted to import a Japanese bathtub back to the U.K. It makes you feel so clean and relaxed and it warms you through and through.

Meg -- Size 24! In fact, when I shop for shoes now, I have trouble remembering whether I'm 6 or 7. But 24 nails it.

You've spent a long time studying Japanese, haven't you? I would love to trade stories.


Charles -- If people were like that all over the world, we'd be hard put to fight over anything. Thank you for your kind words.

Carolie -- Thank God you're okay! I've been thinking about you, wondering where you'd ended up. I will send you an email soon. I can imagine how hard it was for you to leave Nagasaki!

And two cats in a hotel? I have a feeling my daughter will have a lot to share with you on that score...

AP -- I'm so glad that I have a good sample of readers here who have spent time in Japan. Thank you for stopping by.

Kit said...

What a gorgeous story and how wonderful to find them exactly when you needed them.
We are so lucky to be able to travel and meet people without the barriers of wartime.

Bish Denham said...

I was right there with you. What a beautiful story. Indeed, you were blessed to have found your way to them. It was meant to be.

Kim Ayres said...

Beautifully written and a wonderful sentiment :)

planetnomad said...

Excellent post! I really enjoyed this one.

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- Thank you. We really are lucky, aren't we? I think about the millions of people who suffered through WWII -- and the ones who are living in the midst of war right now -- and I find myself wondering how long that luck will last.

Bish -- Thank you.

They were so incredibly helpful and welcoming, which was great. But it was seeing what an impact they'd had on so many other lives that really impressed me. And it has stayed with me all these years.

Kim -- Thank you.

(Is it still snowing over there? I miss snow...)

Elizabeth -- Thank you, too.

Anne Spollen said...

What a wonderfully written story - poetic!

And so touching.

AnneB said...

This had me in tears, Mary. I sent the link to both my sons.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- Thank you. I worry so much that these vignettes will come off as feel-good and mawkish; I reread them again and again, worrying that I've gone over-the-top and achieved Pollyanna-esque sentiment when I'm aiming for so much more.

AnneB -- Thank you for passing this on. I've told my kids this story too.

Writing it made me cry a little too -- I felt like such an idiot! I'm SO glad that I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

Kim Ayres said...

Not snowing here, but it has been frosty the past few mornings

Anonymous said...

Thank you my dear Mary... for once again you made us remember how lucky we are to live in a time of peace... and may that couple be blessed... it is so good to know that such people exist... thank you...

Falak said...

Hi Mary! You don't know how good it felt to have overcome my lazines and come over to the cyber cafe rather than wait for my computer to get repaired when I read this post! The fact that we can travel around the world and meet new people and learn so much.Thanks for sharing all these beautiful stories with us.
PS: Read all your previous posts that i missed out on.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- If you pass by our house, check it's still standing, would you? I have such mixed feelings about that snow. Glad to have missed it, longing to have seen it just once...

P -- Thank you! See you tomorrow. We'll have our work cut out for us, won't we?

Falak -- Thank you for doing that. I'm behind on my visits, but I'll be getting over to you soon too!

Amber Lough said...

Yes, I went to a Japanese elementary school for 2 1/2 years. Their first foreign student!

My mother taught at Seisen in Kamakura, but your jellyfish-sting story (on my blog) reminded me of the time I picked up a Portuguese man-of-war (a baby one) in a beach in Yokosuka. I had scooped it up in a shell to admire the beauty of it, someone said something, and I turned, sloshing it over my hand. I was standing next to tide pools filled with jellyfish, and I had to plunge my hand in the water of the nearest one (and avoid other jellyfish) to get the stinging blue strands off. My friends (all Japanese) thought I was nuts. My dad said I was an idiot. I had bubbly hands for weeks!

Tabitha said...

Hi Mary! I've kind of fallen off the planet, but am finally adjusting to all the major changes in my life. I've still found sometime to read your blog, though. :)

This is such a beautiful story! I just love your blog. :)

Charlie said...

I believe there are more peace-loving people in the world than we think; war is for those who have something to gain by it.

Through blogging and especially LibraryThing, I meet people from everywhere. Our cultures and languages may be different, but we share the same emotions, the same laughter and tears, and the same love for peace.

Stella said...

Man, what a great post! You tell wonderful stories. Thanks for sharing this lovely experience

Mary Witzl said...

Amber -- You poor thing -- if that had been an adult man-of-war, you could have been killed! But they are honestly so beautiful and mesmerizing, I can easily see how you would have wanted to touch one.

We had fellow teacher friends in Kamakura who had a little boy our daughter's age who was also the first non-Asian foreigner at his school there. You guys were pioneers there, you know that? :)

Tabitha -- Thank you for that nice compliment.

I hope you know that I positively scour your blog; I study it for ages and take notes (seriously). It is a big souce of my personal writing education and I am very grateful to you for maintaining it.

Charlie -- I agree. It just makes me so sad that the people who have seen what war is like firsthand are the ones who are the most determined to live in peace. And it often seems that younger generations who haven't lived through war don't profit from their painful, hard-earned lessons.

Stella -- Thank you for commenting and giving me that nice compliment. Your email came right after one from my niece, who is also called Stella. For a brief, surprised moment, I thought you were her and wondered how she'd found my blog!

Angela said...

People like this make the world a better place. Thanks so much for sharing this story--I loved it!

Eryl Shields said...

It was the man with the basket of fire wood that set me off!

Pat said...

What an uplifting post and I take my hat off to you for being so brave to travel alone far from home and to be able to speak in a foreign language as difficult as I imagine Japanese to be.
That really is a heart warming story and an unforgettable experience.
I wonder if you have ever discovered Angry Parsnip's blog?

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Thank you!

Eryl -- That really got to me too, the fact that he was out there collecting wood for my bath. If I'd known he had to go to that much trouble just so I could have hot water, I'd have gone to bed dirty.

Pat -- Thank you.

Japanese really isn't a hard language to speak, and although you have to be a little careful, I felt a lot safer there than I did traveling around the U.S. The people who always amaze me are the ones who travel all over places like India, Mongolia and the Outback of Australia, all by themselves. Compared to them, what I did was very tame.

I do know Angry Parsnip, and I mean to get over to her blog again soon! I know her son is living in Japan, so I bet she'll have pictures.

Dale said...

What a very beautiful post. I teared up too.

Thank you!