Friday, April 1, 2011

Sentimental Journey

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 – Takarazuka

Awoke early at our hotel, showered, and ate a protein bar for breakfast since we were invited for lunch in Takarazuka with our friend and neighbor, Misayo Igo. Toshi and Kae met us in the lobby for the trip since they were also invited. Toshi had contacted Misayo and Kazue several months ago. The invitation was extended at that time.

Whenever we had American guests, Misayo-san invited us – and them – for a sukiyaki party. Very un-Japanese, but very Misayo.  We had shared many meals, both in their home and in ours. Once again, we would relive a memory from the past.

The weather was clear, but cold. Toshi bought our tickets on the JR. Then we caught the train from Universal City Station to Osaka Station and there changed to the Takarazuka line, a route we had taken many times ten years earlier.

Walking through Osaka Station felt very familiar. We remembered the pathway through the crowds, and even the correct track. The station itself hadn’t changed much, but the trains themselves had.

New railcars on the Takarazuka line sported recessed air conditioning registers in the ceiling and hidden heaters. Gone were the old hanging oscillating fans. During the summer, the fans merely moved the hot sticky summer air without any cooling. And in the winter, the old exposed under-seat heaters often burned the backs of our legs while our upper bodies remained cold. The new heaters worked much better, and we assumed the new air conditioning would make summer more bearable.

Arriving at the Takarazuka JR Station was a shock. The old, rickety wooden stairways and exposed overcrossing were gone. In their place was a new, much larger, building with concrete walkways and stairs, and a second floor shopping mall. Most of the station area was at least partially enclosed. Quite a change.

The same old busses left from the same location in front of the Hankyu Station - at the same cost: 210 yen.
The trip up the hill to La Vista, however, was both completely familiar and completely different. The road made the same turns, but many of our landmarks we no longer there, replaced by new buildings. Even lots of the old buildings sported new and different signage.

At the bus stop, we were met by Kazue and her boyfriend, a charming young man whose name I don’t know how to spell. They accompanied us to the Igo’s condo. Good thing they did because we approached from the bottom of the hill, and ten years ago, we always entered from the top. After taking the inclinator and several circuitous hallways, we finally arrived at a location we recognized. Finding their home was a cinch from there.

Entering the genkan, we removed our shoes and donned slippers. Larry’s heels hung over the backs, just like always.

Kazue called to her mother, who appeared from the kitchen wearing an apron. Just as we had in parting almost exactly ten years earlier, we hugged and cried. We had both lost much of our skill in each others’ languages, but the ‘heart connection,’ as Misayo once described it, remained.

She still remembered the English for ‘best friend,’ and I remember the Japanese. Nothing had changed, yet everything had moved on.

During the year following our return to the US, ‘Papa-san’ died in an auto accident. This sweet, funny, quiet man was no longer present, yet we still felt his spirit.

We had brought her omiage, the requisite gift. We had wanted it to be extra special because of all that we had shared. Several months ago, we found all the photos of the various occasions when we were together. Larry scanned them, then I had a photo book made. Misayo was very moved and seemed pleased to have this memento of our mutual history.

We sat at their kontatsu table for a cup of tea and sweets. Misayo remembered Larry’s famous (infamous?) sweet tooth, and had a variety of candy and cookies for us.

We found out that Kazue’s boyfriend is fluent in several languages, including Japanese, English, German, and Russian! They met in German language school prior to her move to Germany several years ago.

Between Kazue, her boyfriend, Kae and Toshi, we had more than adequate translation assistance!

Lunch was just as we remembered: a simming pot of vegetables and meat, cooked in soy sauce with a little sugar and water added to make a broth. DELICIOUS!

The fun part of sukiyaki is fishing the desired items from the pot while talking. As items are removed, others are added, so the cooking process continues throughout the meal.

Misayo had grown her own dikon radishes in her garden, and they were sweet and crisp and tender – the very best we’d ever had.  At the end of the meal, she brought out my favorite udon noodles and some sprouts. We all ate too much, but the food and conversation were so good, we didn’t want it to end.

In our honor, Misayo served her plum and sakura (cherry blossom) wines. Before we left Japan, she had given us small bottles of each. Some of both remain. Since they are talking about coming to California next year, we promised to toast with our wine when they arrive.

I had mentioned on the train through Osaka that we had always wanted to see the Sky Building but had never gotten there.

Toshi and Kae took the train, and Kazue’s boyfriend drove the rest of us into town. This route, from Takarazuka to downtown Osaka, was also familiar since Larry had driven it many times. However, there is a new and improved feature on the tollways. They now use transponders! No more stopping in a long line at each tollbooth to give your coins to an attendant.

The Sky Building is a structure of dual towers, joined by one floor across the top, like an inverted letter U. Crisscrossing the expanse, at 173 meters above the ground, are two glass escalators. Around the top floor is a 360-degree open-air viewing platform called the Floating Garden. Not for those who have a fear of heights, but great for anyone who wants to see the entire city of Osaka laid out below in every direction. It was approaching sunset, and the bay shimmered golden toward the west. Clouds and fog dissipated the light, giving the vista a surreal, dreamlike quality. Gorgeous!

We strolled around the garden on the ground floor until it was time for us to leave. Toshi had made reservations for dinner at a tempura restaurant.

And just as ten years ago, saying goodbye was difficult. Misayo and I clung to each other and cried. But we hope they will actually come for a visit next year and we can show them Dana Point and Southern California. So perhaps we will not take another ten years to reunite.

Dinner was superb! We were first asked what kinds of foods we would like, then small individual skewers arrived at each of our places, one or two at a time, freshly coated in a very light batter, and fried to a perfect golden brown. I had never thought of tempura with asparagus, but the tender spears with their crisp coating were delicious!

Larry ate the shrimp, head and all, tiny fish, head and all, and many other delicate vegetables as well as chicken, beef, and cheese. Each one was better than the last. We finished the meal with a small scoop of pear ice cream. The perfect finale to a wonderful meal.

We returned to our hotel, sated and ready for a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our day in the park to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of USJ. So far, this entire trip has far exceeded our expectations.

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