Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

Haibun: Tokyo Years, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #tokyo #womenauthors

June day
a child says goodbye
breeze blows on the runway

Steel stairway, wings and jet engines. Our Pan Am Boeing 707 in sun-glare. Idlewild to San Francisco, to Honolulu, then to Tokyo. Blue bows braided into my pigtails, blue plaid summer dress catches a hot breeze. Suddenly, I realize my Cinderella watch is still tucked into the seat pocket, and I’ll never see it again. Our family of four begins a three-year adventure in a new country and culture, far from my grandparents’ secure New Jersey home–our place of permanence–amid our transitory Air Force life. My father’s Far East forays are difficult for Mother, baby sister and me, but we are open to learn and enjoy this beautiful land and culture.

The Japanese expression for a sweet memory link–to a song, familiar food, place–is Natsukashii. I return to the traditional music of the stringed Koto, the popular song of“Sakura” Cherry Blossom, the colors and textures in silk fabric, in straw, bamboo, the plants; the scent of burning cone incense, sweet waxy red ink of my honko initial stamp, all of the imagery and life that was the Tokyo I knew.
A lush water garden captivates me. A chain of blue iris-filled streams and four wooden arched bridges over beads of glimmering ponds. Green iris leaves spike, and purple flower shades coalesce and merge filling each tiny brook. Dragonflies dart and hover on water lily pads. Ladies with black hair piled and fastened wear silk printed kimono. High geta shoes; gentle sound of wood on wood. Serenity.

Washington Heights–over eight-hundred housing units, office buildings, schools, movie theatre, chapel, base exchange, clubs, and swimming pools–was a sprawling middle class community built in 1946. Courts of quadplex landscaped with Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Yews, and Maples, green lawns for children, and sidewalks lined with cherry trees becomes our home the summer of 1961. A three-acre grove of black oak and pine stretched along a wide slope below our neighborhood. I roamed the mossy ground among big stones, on paths under a domed canopy in dappled light, or in bare winter chiaroscuro. We children carved hearts in bark, and peeled hardened cambium scars to renew old initials and friendships. Cicadas slipped their shells, claws gripped to rough bark. We wore papery skins on our shirts like badges. These trees, a forest fragment, spilled over a high fieldstone wall undulating at the edge of our play space. One-hundred and seventy acres of evergreens surrounding Meiji Shrine and inner garden were planted in 1926 to honor spirits of the Emperor and Empress, last rulers of Tokyo’s Edo period. The wall banked and bordered my sanctuary, my peaceful shrine.

sultry summer day
mantis in a bamboo cage
horned beetle eats jam

I attended fifth and sixth grades at an international girls school several miles from Shibuya-Ku and Washington Heights. Sisters of Notre Dame taught French, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Art and the sacred rule of Silence. We wore navy blue, but for family days, when our traditional garb, art, music and foods were relished. A cathedral-like chapel, medals bestowed for merit, giggles in refectory lunches, field sports, and myriads of smiles, all too brief.

Dad liked to venture outside the gate with us to Shinjuku shopping district. Vivid images, textures, toys entice me. Doll faces fascinated. A ten-year-old’s allowance of a few Yen could buy tiny glass animals, a pair of painted wood peg kokeshi dolls, lucky Daruma dolls, Hakata dolls in folk dress, or eggshell faced Ichimatsu Gofu, boy and girl baby dolls. Mom chose a kimono-clad Geisha doll in a glass case, and a delicate-looking red-flowered paper umbrella, Wagasa, waterproofed with oil, made with bamboo ribs, for spring and early summer rains. We followed mingled fragrances of street food: steamy Yakisoba noodles, tasty fried or grilled dumplings, savory grilled rice crackers, skewered chicken Yakitori.
Slated as the site of 1964 Summer Olympics, Washington Heights was set to be demolished. Dad made ready to move us summer of 1963, so we could be spared the sight of familiar buildings razed. I did my best to adjust to the move to Johnson Air Force Base, Irumagawa, north of western Tokyo, but change always came too quickly.
I missed my grove of trees, and one day I wandered on a shaded path at the rear of our quarters. I found myself at the top edge of a tea paddy, above a vast field of manicured tea bushes. Below to the right was “Ichiban Village,” airman’s housing. Ichiban means number one. I am “number one” daughter, and at twelve, would attend base junior high that fall. I squeezed through a break in the barbed wire fence and picked a handful of aromatic leaves. I breathed fresh air under a wide, blue sky. Ninety miles away, snow-capped Mt. Fujiyama, suspended from soft clouds. On rides through the city of Sayama to another airbase, I’d seen picturesque fields, farmers in peasant garb bending in rows, and Fuji San, getting closer, getting farther away.

In Spring – Sakura
beloved cherry blossoms
sidewalks turning pink


Want to read more by Mary Ellen Gambutti? Read her previous story, I Must Have Wandered.


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I Must Have Wandered, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#japan #memoir #realistic #short stories #womenauthors

On a sunny late June 1962 morning Mom directed me to return to school for my cordovan oxfords. I had forgotten to change into them on the last day of school, and wore my black indoor uniform loafers home on the bus. “Go get them!” she shouted. I was ten at the finish of fifth grade, a cautious child. To leave Washington Heights, our military housing complex, alone, on foot, was a daunting prospect. But I obeyed Mom and hiked to the main gate carrying nothing, not even my dependent’s identification card. A Japanese guard waved ‘bye,’ asked no questions as I entered Tokyo streets, to feel my way to Sacred Heart campus.

Beyond the sentry at my left was Meiji Park. I gathered my recollection of the school bus route, past the commuter rail station, and into the modern business district of Shibuya. Perhaps it was a Monday–maybe I’d been out of school a week—the sidewalks filled with boys in school uniform shirts and jackets, businessmen, department store shoppers in kimonos or skirts and blouses, pedestrians young and elderly; people I had come to trust during the first year my Air Force family lived in Japan.

City bustle around me, I rested briefly against a building, my head in a whirl. I exchanged smiles and bows, then made my way across a wide, busy intersection among the throng. With vague memory of the way, I began to ascend a narrow street into Hiroo, where homes rested along the road to my destination. Relieved to see the massive tori gate on my right, I walked under it and entered Sacred Heart school grounds.

My mission urgent, I turned up the stone driveway to the main building. Free of my uniform navy jumper and white blouse, and instead wearing sneakers, summer shirt and shorts, I felt out of place. Up the marble steps and into the halls of my all-girls school, I passed a few nuns, but they didn’t seem to notice me. In the cloakroom, that place where the daily business of shoe change and outerwear hanging was conducted under the demands of silence, I pulled the culprit shoes from my cubby. Without hesitation, I returned to the hall and exited into the drive, past the silent tea house and stone lantern, then under the tori—but what next? I should have turned left to descend through Hiroo, but did I?

I must have wandered; have no recollection of how long, or how I ended up in the village of Shinjuku opposite Washington Heights, the other side of Meiji Park. But when I found myself in front of a familiar shop, face to face with my American playmate, Kathy, and her mother, Mrs. Meadow, I was relieved.

“How did you get here? Are you alone?” Mrs. Meadow looked concerned. Kathy smiled in surprised.

I was tired, and gave in to self-pity. “My mother made me walk to school for my shoes.” I clutched them in my arms.

Mrs. Meadow, always friendly when I played with Kathy in their home, didn’t smile this time, but pointed to her car. “You can ride home with us.” I gladly accepted her offer of a small icy bottle of Pepsi, and rolled into the backseat of her Chevy.

I let the front screen door slam behind me, and held the shoes out to my mother. “Mrs. Meadow brought me home,” I told her, but said nothing about the journey.

“Put them in your closet,” was all I recall she said. She must have been relieved to see me, but I’ll never know.

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