What’s 45 years when one is busy growing up, getting married (twice), studying, working and bringing up a family?
My 1970s OE didn’t include the North of Ireland. Not a very appealing destination. I wasn’t ready to reconcile the sheltered world I knew as a seven year old with decades of media reports of the troubled six counties.
The need to go ‘home’ surfaced in the 21st century... to breathe reality into the family archive that was frankly a little stale and trite... bring some colour to faded memories.
I had thought about ‘home’ in an abstract sense, written poems and essays about the childish pain of leaving, worked through the strangeness of the new country’s customs and misunderstandings to finally embrace all things New Zealand.
I finally took the plunge to get rid of a sentimental home-view, after joining a ‘development’ group at work in which we supported each other as we strove to fulfil long-held dreams.
It dawned on me that I would take my 17 and 19 year-old girls, rather than venturing onto once-familiar soil alone. I needed the familiar Kiwi-ness of these wild colonial girls on this trip I felt was ‘so important’. If it was so important why had I put it off for so long?
My daughters always accuse me of liking the other one best. They’re like day and night, the lion and the lamb. How can I possibly choose? They’re both wonderful!
En route to Ireland we stop off in Tokyo and meet the rush hour. The girls are cool: somehow they know which train to catch.
Scores of well-behaved people track through the central railway station.
Susan’s pale skin and hair attract discreet attention but no one looks directly.
The Japanese mind their own business beneath a blood red globe; the sun hangs above a sea of concrete that warms Tokyo to several degrees beyond its natural temperature.
With minimal Japanese, we rely on facial expression and a few phrases. The politeness is almost embarrassing. My brother, who teaches English in Tokyo, advises us to do a lot of ‘bowing and scraping’.
Devotees of Karangahape Road’s Illicit and Misery style, Jane and Susan know exactly where they want to go in Tokyo: to Shibuya, where the high school kids are famous for dressing in outrageous costumes.
The knowing girls of Shibuya streets sport short tight skirts, chemically brown legs and disarranged socks like their West Auckland counterparts. I hope to spot a Gothic Lolita but unfortunately they’re all at school when I visit.
My Japanese sister-in-law who manages our hotel six days a week from eight to eight, takes a day off to take me to a temple outside the city while the girls head back to tackle Shibuya without me. See ya later Mama San!
Early in the morning before my sister-in-law arrives, I explore the West Tokyo neighbourhood. Every square centimetre is a tribute to the art of placement; even the drains in the streets are etched with maple leaves patterns. I would have liked to spend all day there among the lanes, graveyards and gardens of extreme smallness.
I tip down iced green tea from a handy dispensing machine and head up the hill path past the local temple’s red gates and the incense cauldron.
The trees appear well behaved, possibly because there’s not so many of them. Their leaves feel crisper and drier than we’re used to in the South Pacific. Cicadas make strangely metallic sounds.
At every turn of the incline, there are small stone figures in red crocheted bibs and hats like tea cosies. Who makes these accessories, carrying them up the forest path, courting the possibility of snakes, to adorn the Buddhas?
Each statue has a different benign, austere face. One is downright grumpy with a downward mouth as though life as a stone Buddha is a difficult path.
The traffic hum below is barely audible.
The September climate has risen to 30 plus degrees and climbing into to an air-conditioned car is a relief.
The air is cooler as Tomomi and I wend up a dappled foliaged path to another temple 40 minutes drive away. Family names inscribed on large pieces of wood court beneficence. On the mountaintop, there are hundreds of shrines, stern statues, offerings and buddhas.
We dip into welcome shade and pause by the giant ‘jandal’ shrine. I’m intrigued by the porcelain foxes. The fox is apparently a tricky god to placate, not being one of Buddha’s 12 animals. The fox can be good or bad, you can’t be sure, my sister-in-law explains.
Back at the hotel my two op shop queens flop into air conditioned comfort and giggle about the white-faced pigtailed temptresses of Shibuya. They report on the Gothic Lolita kitsets for sale. That’s way too easy, they sneer. I wonder if there are Humbert Humbert kitsets as well...
At our Japanese family’s flat above their shop, the good daughter-in-law feeds ‘one-hundred-year-old grandmother’ teaspoons of mashed fish. Grandmother’s tiny hands purple and shrunken wave weakly, she smiles and nods.
The front room is not as minimalist as you might expect; it’s stacked with four generations and a Shitzu rolling its eyes crazily. We slip out into the warm night and settle into a traditional Japanese restaurant, one of a chain, my brother explains.
The two little Japanese-New Zealand girls connect with their big cuzzies over karaoke, wildly shouting ole, ole, ole, as Mama San and Papa San smile indulgently and my brother and I say goodbye - again.
‘Thanks for the Weetbix,’ he says. We took him six packs.
______________________________________________________________________________________Finding home part two will be in Kiwiboomers' April edition
© Liz Mahoney, Auckland, February 28, 2007