Our Family Adventure in Japan

 I apologize to my readers for my prolonged absence. I’ve spent most of the fall and winter of 2013 neck deep in a fiction project. Because it’s the school holidays, I’m taking a moment to pause for breath. (Apart from reading Harry Potter with my seven-year old, doing crafts with my four-year-old, and cleaning my half of our home office, I’m taking a break from almost everything). I also made a pledge to myself to return to my blog, and here I am.

Also, an update on the aforementioned, upcoming comic strip. In the fall, my collaborator and illustrator became pregnant. Due to a difficult first term, she was unable to work. She’s feeling better, and we’re back at work! More to follow in the coming months….

Last fall, we flew the whole family to Japan. My youngest being four and a half, my oldest seven and a half, we thought it not a bad time to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country, one with a thirteen hour time zone difference. And while the experience was challenging (my son ate only rice for three weeks), it yielded numerous rewards.

For one, being in a completely foreign culture strengthens family bonds. For another, we had the reward of experiencing a country we’d wanted to go to for a long time, one rich in nature and culture.

I spent a relatively short time there, so I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on Japan—I’m not. But two things struck me: one, that Japan is parent and child friendly. I also noticed how rooted Karate-Do etiquette is in Japanese society.

Japan appears to be structured around family. Given the relatively low birth rate, I find this curious. Nevertheless, many things seemed to be made with the needs of the family in mind. The bathing culture in particular is family friendly. (Can I rave for a minute about how much I love Japanese baths. For one, I love lounging in water. I also appreciate that young girls witness women’s nude bodies in all their varieties, a healthy counter measure to media images of unrealistic women’s bodies.)

One village bath, in Yakushima (a small island south east of mainland Japan), had a wooden crib in its change room. I watched a young mother leave her baby in the crib while she went to bathe herself and her two other children. Old women gathered around the crib. The baby, who must have been three or four months old, squinted up at them, gurgling as the women cooed and fussed. In my own lonely months as a mother of young children, I would have given everything I owned for that kind of communal support. I found it hard enough to get away for a shower!

The degree to which the Japanese have solved those little everyday problems we encounter in modernized society astounds me. They seem particularly attentive to parental needs.

In many public washrooms in Tokyo and Kyoto, small, hanging booster seats are found not only in cubicles, but also beside the communal sinks. Mothers can seat the toddlers in the boosters while they themselves use the washroom or wash their hands.

Only a parent can fully understand the benefit of these hanging seats. No longer will you have to teeter off the toilet to try to grab a toddler attempting to crawl under the cubicle door, while you simultaneously try not to pee on your feet. No longer will you have to leave the sink prematurely in order to pursue a child, your hands dripping a trail across the floor, under others’ disapproving stares.

Visiting Japan, I understood for the first time where Karate-Do etiquette comes from. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful. We don’t speak a word of Japanese, but Japanese people were willing to work on understanding us.

And people bow, of course. Not only that, though. They are extremely attentive. When you speak to someone, they are fully present. Their bodies are still. They listen. Then they do everything possible to meet your needs. Everyone we met seemed to practice loving kindness, a practice undoubtedly rooted in Zen Buddhism.

I’ve often been told that Japan has a very low crime rate. I have an uncle who works in the police force in Paris. He informs me that Japanese tourists in Paris are often victims of crime, simply because, coming from a somewhat crime-free society, they’re unusually trusting.

On the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto, my husband forgot his wallet beside a subway ticket machine. Our train tickets, credit cards, and the cash we had just retrieved in preparation for our travel day (many places in Japan run on cash only) were in that wallet. Leaving us at the train station, he went back to our point of departure in the hopes that someone had retrieved the wallet. I sat the kids down on their mini suitcases at the side of an underground corridor, where thousands of commuters tripped briskly back and forth between subway and train lines. For the next two hours, we read books and, to the kids’ delight, ate vending machine chips and chocolate.

Two hours later, he was back.

He told me the story. The wallet had not been at the ticket machine, and, desperate, my husband approached the ticket collector. By dint of gestures and the Google Translate feature on his phone, he communicated his predicament. The collector pointed him in the direction of what turned out to be the Lost and Found room. There, my husband found his wallet. Train tickets, credit cards, and several bills were there, all untouched.

 

 

 

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Karate Kids

Two Saturdays ago was my daughter’s first day at karate class. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her standing in front of me, wearing the Gi that my old Sensei had given to her at her birth, six years ago. The moment was bittersweet, since my Sensei, who retired last year, wasn’t there to see her wear his gift, or witness her first tentative punches and kicks.

I have mixed feelings about involving my kids in karate. On one hand, I agree with the things people usually say about kids and karate. It’s great for strength and confidence building, spirituality, and discipline. As an adult who started karate in my twenties, I wish I had been able to draw on karate’s resources to cope with childhood bullying. I also think that karate is great for girls in particular, because, like many sports, it lets them experience their bodies in a way that is socially undervalued, encouraging them to be proud of their physical strength.

So karate is great for kids.  On the other hand, I believe that kids should not be pushed into doing extracurriculars they hate. My kids are not an extension of me; just because I love karate, doesn’t mean they should (okay, maybe they should, just a teeny bit).

I decided to aim for simple exposure. If she liked it, great. If she didn’t, I would make a huge effort not to weep with disappointment, and we would try again another time. I told my daughter that we would give karate a try, but that I was okay if she decided she wanted to quit and try again later, when she was older.

When we arrived at the dojo, she bowed at the door and gave the required greeting, “Good Morning Sensei.” This was a relief because back home, when we’d told her to practice the greeting at her bedroom door, my spirited child had stormed off and, stomping her foot, declared that she had “changed her mind,” and that she was “not going to karate.” It had taken us a few minutes to persuade her otherwise.

People in the dojo smiled, and I beamed back at them. I was already imagining my daughter at the front of the class, demonstrating a complicated kata under the approving glances of my fellow karate-ka. In an effort to dampen my expectations, I drew hard on my limited mindfulness practice. She might not get it, I thought. She might not even listen. She might, like other perfectionists in my family with whom I’m intimately acquainted, become easily discouraged. I leaned over and whispered to her, “just do your best.”

She joined a group of beginners. A tall woman with long, grey hair taught them basic punches and kicks. She tried to get the kids to bend their knees before and after each front kick. My daughter kicked, but didn’t bend her leg back properly. The leader, who has grown kids and infinite patience, tried again. Still, my daughter didn’t bend her leg properly. She kicked with gusto, though, and even managed to insert one or two ki-a into the mix.

After one hour, she’d had enough. Glancing around at other people’s kids, who were rigourously training, I shamefacedly sat her down on a bench and set her up to watch some you-tube sesame street episodes on my phone, since I’d forgotten to bring alternate activities. Later, as we walked out the door, she declared to me, “I love karate!”

That night, when we visited my parents, my daughter taught my dad some karate. He stood in front of her, an intellectual in his seventies who’s more comfortable in front of a computer screen than in a gym, and did a few wobbly kicks.

My daughter giggled. “Grandpère!” she said. “Not like that.” She did the kick in slow motion. “You have to bend your leg on the way back.”

Then she executed a series of perfectly formed front kicks.