Dōzo go-buji de (Have a Safe Trip)

Aging, Anniversaries, & Accompanying My Elderly Parents Back To Japan

Yoko Nogami

(USA/Japan)


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On a rainy night at a hot spring in in Shizuoka, I look out through a yukimi-shoji. This shoji is a paper sliding screen door with a partial window that draws up from the bottom so you do not have to open the whole door to view the snow in the winter. An ingenious Japanese invention, it keeps the house warm while enjoying the garden, designed to look beautiful, all four seasons.

We are at San You Sou, a Japanese-style hot springs inn, a ryokan, in Shizuoka prefecture, celebrating my parents 60th wedding anniversary. Three months ago, when we flew here from our home in Kentucky, I did not think there would be another wedding anniversary for them, due to my father’s triple bypass heart surgery in January. The surgery was a success but my elderly parents were newly willing to accept my help, a willingness that raises complicated feelings for me. Their wedding anniversary has always been an intensely private affair which involved the two of them and no one else. But today, and perhaps from now on, the third wheel will be present because I am now the caretaker-daughter, the third leg that holds up this tiny unit.

Our family is on a new adventure, the adventure of aging. On this journey, my dad has brought us to a search for new destinations that will welcome him, his new set of wheels for feet, his need for ramps for stairs, and a pee bag for a toilet. It is a journey that none of us has taken before. We do not know where it will lead. I cannot predict how it will end.

*****

Traditional ryokan-style inns in Japan have come a long way. Many used to only have tatami rooms with futons to sleep on the floor. Today, they have rooms with Western-style beds as elderly travellers are having difficulty getting up and down from the floor. This shift has come in handy for my parents, for whom a raised bed has become not a choice but a necessity. In the many years of my absence from this country, Japan has become accessible, kinder to all sorts of folks, and has dropped much of conformity, generally accepting those who are “different.” A few years back, traveling in a wheelchair was considered impolite and rude to vacationers entitled to a hassle-free fantasy where disability and ageing and poverty and pain did not exist. On the local level, the common etiquette was for the wheelchair-bound to stay out of sight to avoid making others feel uncomfortable, to not inadvertently impose upon their time, their space, and their sense of wholeness and comfort. Accommodations were rarely found in public spaces. Times have changed. Today, it is not uncommon for places in urban Japan have accessible bathrooms and elevators, and even the smallest restaurants strive to serve those in wheelchairs by having portable ramps. I would like to credit the recent Olympics for this sudden change but realistically, I sense that the drive comes from an ageing middle-class demographic that needs mobility devices but refuses to be rendered invisible, instead demanding and desiring to be out in public. Money tends to accelerate change, even when the change is to help those who move very slowly.

San You Sou inn is located in the middle of the farmlands of Izu Peninsula. In this, it is unlike most hot springs which are in mountainous areas that require travelling up winding switchbacks to reach the geyser. The surrounding areas consist of rice paddies and strawberry farms; painted guardrails with strawberry motifs repeat along the road. This hot springs district is called Nagaoka Onsen. Each hot springs areas in Japan has a district name that shares the same geyser. The inns make up the strip of souvenir stores, usually known for some distinguished food item, for Nagaoka Onsen district, it is Onsen Manju, a sweet made from red bean paste. Yet many area stores have their shutters closed, though it is hard to tell whether they are temporarily or permanently out of business.

My father kept repeating that the approach to this inn is less-than-desirable, not scenic enough, disappointing. Adding insult to injury, we have arrived too early for check-in but ravenous for lunch. We meander down main street by car, hoping to spot something good, yet all the restaurants seem to be closed. We are nearing the edge of despair when, suddenly, we spot a simple “Machi Chuka” joint, this being a cheap Chinese restaurant that typically offers popular dishes like sweet and sour pork, ramen, and gyozas. It also has parking right next to the main entrance, and there don’t appear to be any big steps to navigate. Parking the car, I run into the restaurant to see if there are accommodations for customers in wheelchairs. Cheerful “ira shai mase!” (Welcome!) shouts come from the chef and the waitress. Many of these Machi Chuka-s have tatami mat seats which require you to take off your shoes and sit on the floor, as this one does. Nice, but won’t do for my dad. The other choice here is to sit in bar stools around a big red counter that surrounds the open kitchen. I ask if we can come in with a wheelchair and they say sure, if your father can sit on the grounded stool at the counter?

I assess. Yes. It is doable.

I return to the car and lead my parents to the counter. This is the first Chinese food that my dad has been able to eat since his hospitalization in December. He has lost almost 30 kilograms due to losing his sense of taste–a side effect from his surgery. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for Chinese food endures. He wheels into the restaurant with obvious delight. Every little thing right now seems like a blessing. He makes it onto the stool and, for a little bit, everything feels like it felt before. The three of us, sitting at the counter of a local restaurant. My dad’s eyeballs glued hungrily to the menu. My parents drooling over the long list of appetizers and main dishes.

Gleefully, we order with our eyes and begin to eat.

A few hours later, having consumed too much and therefore eaten just enough, we roll out of this lovely dive and head to the inn. By the entrance there is a funny-shaped dome coffee shop; further back, there is the Inn itself, a large building with a traditionally-tiled roof. It is beautiful. Two workers come out to greet us wearing happi coats with the store crest on the back. Apologetically, I explain my father’s disability. They are eager to help. The portable wheelchair is easy to use. We pop it out of the car, we pop it open, and my dad pops right in. A rental wheelchair, costing the equivalent of $3 US dollars a month, courtesy of Japanese national healthcare. Ahhhhh, the miracle of unified healthcare. With big smiles, we enter the old building through a wide lobby that leads to a beautiful dark wood floored hallway decorated with the recent Girl’s Day Dolls and the upcoming Children’s Day ornament of Kabuto, a warrior’s outfit. Both are traditional decorations to celebrate and wish for the health and happiness of children.

Please switch wheelchairs, the workers ask, gesturing to the bigger, fancier one waiting for my dad. This new chair is clean and polished, especially the wheels, the better to keep the immaculate floor unscratched. My dad happily switches to the comfier seat. From there, they guide us our quarters.

The hallways are wide, long, maze-like, and empty. Big glass windows on either side reveal an immaculate Japanese garden with small stream running alongside the windows. Our room seems to be the closest one to the lobby. It is a barrier-free, wheelchair- accessible, traditional Japanese-style room. This means, in part, that there is no dedicated bedroom. We will all sleep in the same large room.

*****

Kawa no Ji is a phrase we use in Japan for sleeping in the same room with your family, in a shape of the kanji character “river.” This character “kawa,” is made up of three vertical lines. A happy family is a family where a child sleeps snuggly in the middle between their parents. Sleeping in the order of medium (mom), short (kid) and long (dad) consecutively, just like the character itself.

Relationships such as college roommates and soldiers in the same barracks are said to develop a similar kind of kinship, having much to do with the fact that the sacred sleep was shared. To be clear, for the Japanese, sleeping and sex are completely separate activities, both cognitively and spatially. They do not overlap. We cherish and protect our sleep as sleep. Facebook has a page called “Nobody Sleeps Like the Japanese Do” featuring unbelievably sleepy people passed out in train stations or taking a nap after some hard drinking on the side of the street fully dressed in a salary-man suit. Of course there are violations and transgressions because humans have free will and some choose to fail. But I remember falling asleep standing during my daily commute on a very crowded subway, so crowded, when I fell asleep, other bodies held me up long enough for a power nap. And I also remember the sleeping faces of fellow hikers on the Appalachian Trail as we shared countless shelters together, huddled up on a cold night, listening to the bodily noises that happen in a disarmed deep sleep, snoring patterns, and the shifting of weight on thin mattress pads that squeaked with every move.

This is what I mean when I talk about sleeping with family. Something about being in a small space, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, confers a sense of trust. We make a silent pact with each other that we know we are among safe people and while we slumber, everything around us and our body will be honoured and allowed to rest. In that intimate space, we bond and are bonded, even when we sleep out of exhaustion, out of an inability to stay awake. Proximity demands cooperation, even when we do not want to give it. This is how we live together. It is why we refuse to die alone.

We are very tired, my father in particular, and it is getting late. We are travelers in a natal land no longer our home, a small family accepting the grace of strangers

*****

Before retiring to sleep, a bath must precede. The bath at this inn is one of the reasons why we decided to come here. San You Sou inn is famous for its maze-like layout of traditional architecture, cubicles of independent guest rooms connected by lengthy hallways. They are more like “hanare” or in-law suites, each unit providing a view onto a pristine garden with coiffed trees, ponds, and stone lanterns. The garden is like a miniature secret forest cocooned inside discreet walls that house other units, private enough that no one can see your room but close enough to see lights, glowing dimly through the rocks (mountain), pond (water), and shrubberies (forest), the three essential elements which make up the classic Japanese garden.

Many inns come with utilitarian baths hooked up with tap water for a quick wash, but here, the bathhouse occupies a separate space at the end of hall, and each guestroom has its own engawa porch and lookout window. The wall of the bath house is all glass on one side, framed in old and weathered wood. This evening, a sliding window is letting in a cold rainy breeze. The interior of the bath is made of dark grey slate, with a sunken wooden tub that holds hot spring water, kakenagashi style (endlessly flowing hot springs). You can sink in the tub and look out at the garden while still remaining inside.

There are not many inns with a private hot spring bathtub as beautiful as this one. This arrangement happens to be perfect for my dad, who can enjoy his vacation without the need to visit the public hot springs bath. He can bathe here in privacy with his urinary catheter, what we call “the pee bag.” Together, my mom and I ease him into the tub, my mom keeping his body afloat in the stream of the hot springs water flowing over their bodies. The open window next to the tub makes it possible for him to hang his catheter and bag in such a way that allows the urine to correctly drain. Once he is settled and comfortable, I withdraw and leave them alone. After all, this is their wedding anniversary. This is their time together.

“You don’t have to congratulate us, it’s our anniversary, not yours.” This is how my mom responded when I’d first wished them a happy anniversary. An odd thing to say to a child, but now that I am with them in their old age, celebrating six decades of their marriage here in Japan, I think I understand what she meant. They are two people, intensely dedicated to each other, their relationship so focused that even their own child does not alter that relationship. They are both old and he is infirm. It doesn’t change their bond. I suppose one should be so lucky to find a life partner like that. She has drawn a circle around that relationship just as the Japanese draw a circle around sleep–cherishing it, demanding it, respecting it for what it is, no more and no less.

Looking over the damp garden, the big wooden glass windows frame the two in the tub. The soft glow of the bathroom light flickers in the steam from the tub as the Q-tip white of my mom’s head pops up from the tub and my dad’s bald head is barely visible, almost touching the surface of the hot water. They are holding very still, looking out to the view of the silent misty rain, warm and relaxed. Looks like a perfect wedding anniversary trip. I say to myself. Congratulations you two, from your child, whether you like it or not.

Here’s to sixty years. Fifty-six for me, hanging out with you two love birds.

*****

In our absence, the attendants have come in and set up my futon for sleep. It is set on the floor in the “living room” adjacent to the area where my parents’ western-style beds are located, separated by sliding paper doors. The doors will remain open tonight, making the two areas flow together as one. Slightly removed but it is still a Kawa No Ji sleepover.

After they return from the bath, rested and ready for sleep, I find myself looking out the Yukimi shoji window of this Shizuoka ryokan, laying on my pretty futon, reminiscing the many nights I slept on stiffer foam roll on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve been missing sleeping outdoors. Impulsively, I scoot the futon right up against the shoji screen so I can be as close as I can to the view of the outside. Outside, it is raining, also windy, balmy, blowing dark clouds over the apparent full moon. It is beautiful. A glorious spring evening signifying the impending summer season. I am listening to my dad’s snoring along with a frog chorus, uneven and loud, sometimes stopping all together and with a little snort, start back again: sleep apnea, yes, but he is still breathing. All three of us are. His snoring is so familiar, a comforting sound that signifies to me that we are all at peace. Sleeping. Tomorrow we will resume traveling together.

Yoko Nogami

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Yoko Nogami, an interdisciplinary artist, was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She resides both in Eastern Kentucky and Tokyo. She was the Visual Art Department Chair at Pinellas County Center for the Arts in Saint Petersburg, Florida before moving to the Appalachia region of Kentucky as the Artistic Director at the Appalachian Artisan Center. After hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2022, she served as the Director of Cultural Arts and Education at Cowan Community Action Group, Inc. Currently, she is an independent artist and Cultural Arts Consultant, focusing on preservation of old-time music and traditional arts of Appalachia.

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