Mandarins and wildflowers: My Japanese mother

    She greeted me at the train station. A tiny woman with the kindest, most sparkly brown eyes and a shock of reddish black hair a bit like a halo around her face. Sure, she was small in stature and unquestionably meek, but I could feel a sense of power about her. She drove me to her pension house, a decidedly un-Japanese yet charming construction of wooden siding peeling country blue paint against white trim. There were wildflowers everywhere. As soon as I stepped into the house, I was escorted to the dining room where she proceeded to fill me with hot coffee until I could drink no more. The light inside was warm, art covered the walls, classical music played softly on the stereo, and I felt safe.

     She asked me where I was headed to next, and when I told her, she explained in broken English that the train there was down as a result of the recent earthquake and volcano eruption. Visions of hitchhiking flickered in my mind’s eye for a moment before she held up one finger and got on the phone. I heard her make at least three calls, speaking in urgent Japanese, before she returned.  She pointed on the map to the train station from which I’d need to depart: it was forty-five minutes up a windy mountain road and, she explained, there was no public transportation to get there. 

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    “But my husband drive,” she said, making the steering wheel motion with her arms. She said it firmly, so that even when I began to protest and press her to charge me, I knew it was useless. He would drive me to the train station, and that was that. 

    The next morning in that same sunny breakfast room she presented me an enormous German-style breakfast of sausage links in broth, warm, fresh bread and fruit delicately cut into the shapes of animals. I smiled as I ate my bunny rabbit apple slice; it was nice to be doted on after so long on the road. I would soon find out that I had no idea the depths of this lovely woman’s kindness. 

    After breakfast, she with the tender and glittering eyes instructed me to get my laundry because she was going to the laundromat. The next day as I stepped out the front door, setting off for a day of hiking, she ran up behind me and presented me with a fresh, bright mandarin. Her eyes reflected - there’s simply no other way to describe it - pure love. I will never, for as long as I live, forget this moment. We were standing on her country blue porch among greenery and flowers, her hair wild about her head. She wore a navy blue bandanna tied around her neck. She looked beautiful, and in Japanese, I told her so. She smiled sheepishly and hid her face with delicate crepe-paper hands. Standing outside that beautiful old blue house in her apron as I set out for the day, she waved to me eagerly, a beaming smile on her face. The next evening, I came back with fresh grocery store sashimi to enjoy for dinner. She sat and chatted with me as I began to eat before we heard a ding! - and she returned moments later with a hot bowl of homemade soup for me to enjoy with my fish. 

    That night in her cozy dining room we talked about traveling. She was excited about my trip to Nepal. She spoke dreamily about how she and her mother had gone there twenty years ago. Her aging mother couldn’t hike up to see the mountains, she explained, so they took a tiny plane up to see Everest and the Himalayas. She cobbled together sentences in English, speaking very slowly, until she said, with crystal clarity: 

    “God…He lives in those mountains.”  

    On the morning I was to leave, she presented me with a handmade card with a little bell on the front. I had drawn her a card as well. She took it from me with both hands, said ‘arigato gozimasu’ with eyes lowered, and placed it on the shelf. I was a bit disappointed she didn’t open it, but it was probably for the best. I had attempted to write my message in Japanese kanji and God - wherever he lived - knows it wasn’t pretty. In any case, I was proud to give her something I’d drawn with care. She had made me feel like her daughter since the moment we met, and in her language, I attempted to convey that in the card.

    She and her husband both accompanied me to the train station and we were mostly quiet as we snaked around the mountain. The mist was thick and the drizzle matched the way we felt, I think: a little sad to say goodbye. The wonderful Japanese couple stayed with me until my train arrived, watched me board, and waved lovingly from the station doors as I walked to the platform and got on the train. She with those dancing eyes waved some more as we smiled at each other through the window of the train. I felt like I was being sent off by my mother to college or on a big trip somewhere. I guess I was, in a way. As the train pulled away and she got even tinier in the distance, I put my hand to my heart and felt the smile spread across my face. I felt loved. 

 Aso volcano range seen from Takamori, Japan - the location of Pension Matisse and her owners

Aso volcano range seen from Takamori, Japan - the location of Pension Matisse and her owners