First published in Mie Times (an English-language newspaper in Mie, Japan), #69, December 2004–January 2005, page 4. First written in October of 2004. See also “The Mended Shōji,” “Myōrenji,” “First Trip to Japan,” and “Fuji Over the Clouds: The Dangers of Travel Haiku.”
It seems to me that visitors to Japan can have one of three main experiences: As a tourist, as a student, or as an expatriate working in Japan. Each experience is different. Tourists may stay only in hotels and see the sites in a packaged way, limited by their own knowledge or that of a travel agency, and with limited time. Students and expatriates may have more time to absorb the culture they are visiting, but are also busy and may have limited budgets.
My experience has been a little different. I live in the United States, near Seattle, Washington (where Ichiro makes baseball fans just as proud of him as they are in Japan, especially this year). My wife is Japanese, and grew up in Minokamo, in Gifu prefecture, just north of Mie. My numerous visits to Japan have included the tourist sites of Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura, Kanazawa, Gero, Fuji, Tokyo, and elsewhere, but have also included staying with my wife’s parents in Minokamo. Each bedroom in their house has traditional tatami mats. I have slept on a futon on the floor rather than in a Western-style bed as I probably would in a hotel. They have a Western-style toilet, yet it has one of those heated seats with electronic controls that I’ve never quite figured out. They are novelties to Westerners! In addition to visiting some of the famous shrines and temples in Japan, I’ve also visited Mt. Tengu, a little local temple just a few blocks from their house. It was a special treat for me to ring in the 2001 new year at this temple, where only four people were waiting in line to ring the bell instead of hundreds or thousands at more famous temples and shrines. I’ll be coming to Japan for the New Year again in a couple of months, and look forward to ringing the bell for 2005 there as well! I’ve enjoyed numerous other personal and family experiences that I don’t think I would ever have had just as a tourist.
A second way my experience of Japan has differed from that of most tourists, students, and expatriate workers comes from my background in haiku. I am currently vice president of the Haiku Society of America, and have published more than 2,500 haiku in hundreds of journals and anthologies. My trips to Japan frequently include visits to haiku poets, which makes my travels different from the typical tourist visit. I feel I have gained more knowledge about the customs and history of Japan because of having studied haiku poems and their aesthetics for many years. At another temple in Minokamo, Koyama-kannon, I once entered a Japanese translation of one of my haiku for a haiku contest, and had it selected for publication in a journal called Jizai, which is surely something that most tourists don’t get to experience! Here’s the poem in English:
all over the red berry bush
snow in tiny heaps
Though my Japanese language skills are very poor, one thing that helps me learn is to read haiku books while visiting Japan, as they often describe the places, history, and language in ways that are easier for me to understand while I am in Japan. One example of this is my reading of A Hidden Pond, edited by Kōko Katō and David Burleigh. The romaji for each poem is given a word-for-word translation, so I learned about the language while enjoying the haiku. I have also had the privilege of meeting both of the book’s editors as well as many other haiku poets in Japan, including Shugyo Takaha and Akito Arima, leaders of major Japanese haiku groups. I hope to meet many more haiku poets in the future as well, whether famous or not.
Whatever your reasons for visiting Japan, I hope you might have the same experiences I have had, for they have been very enjoyable.