In 2004 my husband was president-elect of the local Rotary Club. One of his “duties” as incoming president was to attend the Rotary International conference to be held in Osaka, Japan. (Sidebar – the man who held the office one year after Joe went to Chicago.) The local club paid for Joe’s airfare, conference registration and a hotel stipend. We agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for both of us to go so we swallowed hard and bought my plane ticket and added to the hotel stipend kitty so we could upgrade to a really nice hotel.
(Note: Okay, I am not a total bitch, but I have rules and standards about hotels. My feeling was we were arriving in a very foreign country with no guide or tour or assistance and I wanted a sanctuary hotel with a Western toilet, thank you very much. )
To the left of the hotel is a beautiful, multi-level green garden, nestled among the shops and offices.
The Swissotel Nankai at Namba was all of that and more. I could go on for days about the beautiful linens, the marvelous toilet with an instrument panel for swishy warm water (and air) features, or the delicate porcelain of my morning coffee creamer that fit in the palm of my hand, looking for all the world to be a fragile, dainty blown egg. I could regale you with stories about how we ventured out unaccompanied and explored Osaka and Nara and surrounding cities by train, bus and subway. (We did get pretty horrifically lost once, but recovered quickly and found our way back to Osaka and the aforementioned sanctuary hotel, thank you very much.)
But this is about my schoolgirls.
While wandering through Nara Park we stopped at the Toshodai-ji Temple where we found a busload of Japanese students all wandering about with little notebooks in their hands, obviously there on an assignment that would enable them to mingle with non-native tourists. Most of the girls just looked at us, giggled, and shyly scattered. Once we sat down on a bench we were approached by four beautiful girls who, in halting English, asked us if we could help them with their English lesson. We proceeded to answer their questions, sign our names in their notebooks, let them take our pictures with them while all the time giggling madly like 6 year-olds. (In fairness, they were giggling too.) It was all too hilarious – between their halting English and our feeble attempts at the Japanese phrases we learned for the trip, the whole thing was entirely too funny to be borne. They were so charming and adorable and sweet and innocent. Their “homework” provided us with one of the best memories of the trip.
I loved Japan. Profoundly. Our trip there was like nothing else I have ever experienced. We wandered up and down streets of towns where no one spoke a word of English, and yet we were greeted and kindly welcomed everywhere we went. Even in restaurants we managed to point at menus and communicate we were open to tasting whatever they thought we would like. When we got lost or turned around we were quickly rescued by someone who would observe our confusion, hold our map and look at us as if to say, “Where do you want to go?” and we would point at the map and they would point us in the direction we needed to go.
Now it is seven years later and I watch the news reports with a knot in my stomach. When I see people looking for their lost family members the emotion swells up in me and I feel my nose and eyes ache and grow warm with tears. I feel helpless and sickened and overwhelmed. I look at our pictures from the trip and the faces of those schoolgirls and I wonder where they are today. Have they started college by now? Are they near the worst of the earthquake and tsunami damage? Are they safe? I think about all the ema we left at every temple we visited, writing our prayer intentions and wishes on them and hanging them carefully among the others. I brought home a few extras I made and holding them now I close my eyes and make a spiritual ema for the people of Japan. I pray for their safety, for the continued grace they have shown in the aftermath, for the unthinkable sacrifices made by the Fukushima 50 and their families, and especially for the well-being of my Nara schoolgirls.