Mike Nishimuta's Trip to Japan

May 23-27, 1985


      I departed from my assigned station in Korea, the city of Taegu, on Thursday, 23 May 85. I had been hoping for this trip to Japan for many years, to visit the  home and the town in which my grandfather had been born. With only five weeks left in the country, this was my final chance. I took a train to the Korean port city of Pusan, where I boarded a short, 40-minute flight across the sea of Japan to Fukuoka, the capital town of Fukuoka prefecture on the southern-most island of Kyushu. Fr. Jim, who had flown down from Hokkaido, met me at the airport with  Tomoko, a female cousin who lives in Fukuoka, and her children. She accompanied us  to the train station and saw us off. Fr. Jim and I had a snack in the area of the  station before we left, a generous portion of sushi and selection of fresh fish,  with some large Kirin beers: a foreshadowing of the constant eating and drinking  that would occur in the next three days.

      We departed Fukuoka at five pm for the 150-mile trip south. It: had been a  few years since Jim's previous trip here, and he remembered on a previous trip  seeing a town called Nishimuta on the way to Izumi city, our destination. It was  a beautiful early summer evening and we passed many fields of wheat, barley and  fields of vegetables, along with many hotbeds made of plastic sheeting. As I  casually glanced out the window I did see a sign that looked like Nishimuta, and  we remembered where it was so we could take a picture as the train sped by on the  way back north. Wa passed picturesque towns of Kurume, Omuta, Kumamoto and Yatsu-  hiro as the train approached the west (Nishi, in Japanese) coast of the island  and dusk turned to dark.

      The train arrived at Izumi city at eight pm, precisely on time, and there to  meet us on the platform were the old couple, Yukitchi and his wife Kane, and  Yukit chi's older sister, Michi. Yukit chi is the oldest son of Kichinosuke, the  oldest son of Kyuzaemon, who is my great-grandfather. As such he is the one who  is most interested in maintaining the family history and traditions and keeps the  family artifacts. The arrival at the station had much significance for me, because  I could picture my grandfather leaving Japan in 1905 from the same station. It was  a still, clear night, making the small-town train station seem like a scene from  long ago.  Outside the station palm trees grew, giving the area a tropical look

      The original house that Kyutaro had been born in was removed and an entirely  new house was constructed and finished in 1984. The new house is absolutely  beautiful and contains all the latest in modern Japanese architecture. As we  arrived we removed our shoes, and I wished I had not brought lace-up shoes for  this trip! Entering the primary room of the house, containing the family shrine  and old artifacts, Jim led me in a simple bow of reverence to the shrine and the memory of our ancestors. This custom is deeply ingrained, as I found out a few days later when other family members arrived. As they arrived they would procede directly to the shrine, deposit a small gift, bow for a moment of silence, and then rise to greet each member in the room: a beautiful sign of rememberance. Even more ironic  for me was that this weekend was the American Memorial day holiday: a time to  remember past heroes.

The house itself was stunning. Jim said it copied almost exactly the outline  and size of the house it replaced. The latest in technology for the bathroom: flush  toilet with a faucet at the top. Each time you flush, water comes pouring out a  faucet at the top, into the toilet tank, allowing you to wash your hands without  turning any knobs. The bath contained a very large and deep tub which allowed you  to soak in steaming hot water seated, up to the neck. In the main living room, a  massive Japanese cyprus tree trunk, polished and finished, dominates the end of the  room dedicated to the family shrine. It is expertly built into the woodwork, where a smaller tree limb crosses perpendicularly from wall to wall. Intricate wood carving in softer wood adorns a wall-to-wall scene above the partition between the two rooms. On this partition hangs a color photo of the Emperor and his wife. On the other walls  in wooden and glass frames hang precious old photographs from the past. I recognize  one right away, the family portrait taken in 1908. The floor is a beautiful hard  wood, polished, in the hallways around the rooms, and inside the living space, tightly-woven tatami mats with colorful satin borders form the floor. Dividing the halls from the rooms on every side are beautifully decorated sliding doors with scenic landscapes painted on. The simplicity and beauty of the house accurately reflects the nature of this people.

We spent the first night meeting the family there; Yukit chi's second son,  Kazunori, wife Tazuko, daughters Keiko, Shoko, and son Tomoyasu, live in a house  right next door. After a few drinks Yukit chi and Kane walk us to a new six-story  hotel only two blocks away. On the top floor, with a grand view of the entire night-  view of the city, is a magnificent gourmet restaurant. They watched as Jim and I had a grand dinner and wine. Jim had never seen the hotel, and it was an outstanding one for such a small town as Izumi. Returning to the house, we passed the location where the family graveyard had been before, only to be replaced by a modern service  station, lit brightly in the night.

The room between the front door and the living room became our bedroom after  futon cushions and bedding was laid down on the tatami mats. It was firm and comfortable, but morning came soon when every sound in the house could clearly be heard through the paper walls.

     Friday began as an overcast day, and after a heavy breakfast of eggs, ham, toast, coffee, and pineapple, and more visiting with the family, Yukit chi had arranged for a newspaper reporter to come out to the house. As when Grace and Margaret were in Japan,it was a big event, and Yukit chi was proud to show off his American relatives. Yukit chi dressed me up in the family armor from the earlier Samurai warrior days, and several pictures were taken. Jim translated as the reporter interviewed me, wanting to know what I thought about Japan and how it compared to the United States. After the interview, Yukichi took us to the local museum, a very modern structure above the fine library on the river. There were some well preserved examples of farming implements from the early days, as well as military armor, swords, arrows and other displays of the history of the people who lived in this area. By now it was raining steady and we went down to the city department store. Yukichi shared a meal of noodles with Jim and I as Kane went shopping for food for the evening meal. She came back loaded with fresh fish, fruit,and vegetables.

After lunch he drove us up into the higher hills to find the grave site of the Madarame family, an older brother to Kyutaro who had eluded us in the past with some uncertain connections in the family tree. A steep hike up a wet hill covered with cyprus and bamboo led us to the recently placed tombstone marker of the large and wealthy Madarame clan. The name of Kiemon Madarame, the older brother who had “adopted” Kyutaro, and of whom Kyutaro writes in his letters and diary, is etched and painted in gold paint on the new marble tombstone. The familiar tri-circle “mon” or samurai emblem, is on the marble. Further up the hill, at the top, is the final resting place of the "Lord" Samurai of the area, the first to consolidate power in this region. Throughout the hilltop are scattered stones marking forgotten graves as well as well-remembered family monuments.

We stopped momentarily to visit the middle school that all the members of grandfather's family had attended. While the building is newer, the location is the same, and an old wooden gate at the entrance reveals the age of the original school. Yukit chi showed us the area of town that the Madarame family had owned, a larger area that had made them wealthy and influential many years ago. Today a single dwelling occupied by the present-day Madarame family is all that we find.

The rain continued as we drove home, and there to meet us were family members from towns several hours away. That evening we had a large, more festive dinner with Michi's daughter, Ichiko, Ichiko's son Hiroyuki, wife Ritsuko (who reminded me of Donna Nishmuta), their children Nobohiko and Yukari, all of Kazunori's family, for a total of 14. It was an extravigant feast of traditional Japanese food, Kirin beer, many toasts, laughs, photographs taken and shown, children running and great  fun. (Except for sitting on the floor from 7 pm until 2:30 a.m., when we finally  retired for the night.) The food I particularly enjoyed, as I have come to like real oriental food much more in the year I have been in Korea. We spent the latter part of the night trying to reconstruct some of the mysteries of the family history.  Yukichi would constantly be bringing out more family artifacts, documents, and books.  We focused largly on the Madarame connection, and after closely examining the 1908 photograph, asked a lot of questions of Michi and Yukichi to answer many questions.  I will try to put it down in another paper, because it is a little bit complicated,  but some questions were answered which Jim did not know the answer to, and would have never knoin if we had not asked these two. When Michi, who is 79, and Yukichi, who is 72, are gone, many of these facts will be lost forever. Fortunately, they have quick minds and remember many details. These two, and Hime, who is 73, are the only three remaining grandchildren of Kyuzaemon in Japan.

Saturday broke clear and sunny, a beautiful day to see the mountains to the east.  After another large breakfast and lesurely morning of chatting, Jim, Kane and I went  back to the rooftop of the hotel to view the city panorama. It was a beautiful day, and a town that is "just right." It's full of bright shop displays, color abounding, a lively stream flowing down from the mountains in the middle of town, efficient city policemen keeping the busy main street clear of parked cars, well dressed people, and smiling children everywhere. It was one of those mornings you wish could last forever.  On our short stroll through the village we passed separately Tazuko, and Michi. It  made me wish that I could live in a town where I could meet my relatives on the street; an older, simpler time.

We took it easy this afternoon. Yukichi took us down the street, right behind the service station, where the mausoleum which holds the ashes of most of the Tateno family are kept. It's not a very nice looking place, just a Shinto-style place to keep the plastic bags and vases which hold the remains of the family members. Back at the house I tried to relax in Yukichi's office, a serene corner room with stately law books, and a table and chair that looked over a hundred years old. What I wanted was a bed to lie down in for a nap, but all the rooms were empty. I went up to sit in the sun on a lawn chair on the upstairs porch, but was soon discovered by Keiko, a young girl who decided I had too many grey hairs and began to pull them out, one at a time, with her teeth. I was just about to fall asleep when a van pulled up, and I knew more relatives had arrived. It was Yumiko with husband Junji, and Naomi and Yasuhiro, and Ichiko had, returned with her husband Kazuhiro who wanted to meet me and had driven several hours to do so.

After gift exchanging, story telling and showing pictures, Jungi drove the van and Kazunori drove his car, to take all the family along to deliver us to Hime's house for the evening. It was an hour's drive up to Minamata, and southeast out of town to Hime's house in the mountains. Itt sits right on the road, next to a vigorous mountain stream, with a tremendous view of the mountains rising right up from the stream. All the family departed, leaving Jim and I with Hime and her two daughters Fumiko and Noriko. Immediately, Hime rushed us into a taxicab, and took Jim and I up several miles into the forest to a mountain spa for a bath. Since her house has no hot running water, it is customary to go to the spa for a bath before dinner. Jim and I slipped into the hot tub of the men's bath, obtaining unlimited health benefits from the rich mineral water. After getting out I was dizzy from the combination of being tired and the soothing effect of the hot bath. We rushed back to the house, where the two daughters had finished dinner for us, It was the same menu as Grace and Margaret had: cook-it-yourself steaks, potatoes, salad. Perhaps she thinks we Americans only eat steak!

Hime's mountain cottage is just a playhouse for her. She has another house in town, but built this one to get away, It's a recently completed, lavish house for one old woman. The nearby river provides a constant waterfall sound. We spent the latter part of the evening on the porch off the side of the living room, again digging into the family history. This time, as expected, we got a slightly different picture, since Hime is a cousin of Yukichi, and her branch of the family is not part of the direct Tateno line, She was more revealing of the Madarame story. Her retelling of the familv history was a little more colorful, a little less factual and exact. The music of the river and Jim's snoring awakened me and put me back to sleep all night, but the futon beds were most comfortable.

In the morning we examined more closely the house. Hime is a true character. She stands about four feet tall, and is constantly moving. At the age of 73, she looks like she could go on forever. She is constantly talking, constantly moving and working. After lunch she packed us in a taxicab, and we said goodbye to this amazing woman, She had carefully instructed the driver to take us on a scenic tour of the coastline north of Minamata, to a small island and resort area where we met up with Fumiko and Noriko. The four of us stopped in a small cafe for fried noodles, then explored the very picturesque tourist island, connected to the shore by a suspension bridge that gave way with every step. Although it was a gorgeous Sunday morning in May, the place was deserted. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing the sights and watching the other Japanese tourists. One was a beautiful young family, with a daughter whom I watched in the restaurant, She was two years old, because I asked, and was quite capably eating noodles with chopsticks-at two years!

Jim and I popped into a church in downtown Minamta for a quick Pentecost mass, just the two of us, and then proceeded to the train station right next door for our departure to Fukuoka. What a surprise to see all the family there to say goodbye to us! Yukichi had brought the whole gang, and proudly gave us copies of that morning's paper which had our photograph and story in it. It was very hard to say goodbye to them. I felt like as I left Yukichi that I was saying goodbye to my grandfather, never to see him again. He is a wonderful man, intelligent, courteous, dignified, and all the family gave us many mementoes, presents and memories of a very warm and caring family.

Noriko joined us in the Pullman sleeper car for the ride, she was going half-way with us. After leaving her at Kumamoto we proceeded on. I just barely got a picture of the station sign at Nishimuta town as the train sped by at 60 mph. We arrived at Fukuoka station at six p.m., checked into a nice hotel Jim had picked out, and met Hime's youngest daughter, Tomoko, with husband Atsushi, son Asako and daughter Tetsuhiko for dinner. It was at another hotel, on the top floor,with a great view of the very modern city of Fukuoka. We had a very formal, French dinner with six courses, and the two young children impressed me to no end as thev sat through the entire dinner well behaved, eating everything set in front of them. The young girl can play the piano, and I gathered that this family is fairly well-to-do. The children were so well-dressed and polite. I would be surprised to see such good behavior in American children of the same age. Afterward we exchanged gifts, showed pictures, and said goodbye.

The next morning Tomoko met Jim and I at the airport, where we departed on separate flights only 50 minutes apart.

The trip to Japan was indeed for me, a "coming home." I felt entirely at home with this very generous, very friendly family. They made me feel more like a hero than just a visitor. They truely made me feel like family. In them I saw so many of the characteristics that I admire in the American family of Nishimuta's. To me, I saw so many of the advantages and rewards of American society in their adequately wealthy culture, with very few of the ugly parts of American society that I see. Everything in Japan seems in order, cared for. Beauty and cleanliness seems to be a high priority in their culture. Fr. Jim was an excellent-travelling companion, and really made the trip a great success for me. I hope that every one of the family in the United States can have the great fortune to visit their relatives. It is a great educational and spiritual experience.

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