I remember next to nothing about visiting George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia when I was 9 years old. But I do remember the conversation my mother and I had with some Japanese tourists while we were lined up out front.
I don’t know how the chat got started, though if I had to hazard a guess, I’d bet my mom initiated our little cultural exchange. On family vacations she was always talking to strangers while we were waiting for things. And before you knew it, the stranger would be going on about a recent divorce or a lifelong battle with rheumatoid arthritis or an adult son who had moved back home and brought his 6-foot-long pet snake with him, and I’d wanna be like, Will you please shut up? The Country Bear Jamboree is starting.
As for the Japanese tourists—I want to say it was a woman and two men—they didn’t yammer on about their personal business; that’s more of an American conversational gambit. Instead, they showed me how their map of the grounds was labeled in Japanese, and I, in turn, revealed the scintillating information that I could count to 10 in their native tongue. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that a Japan unit in third-grade social studies won’t pay off.
After I rattled off the numbers in no-doubt flawless Japanese, my interlocutors asked to snap my picture. Ever since, I have been haunted by the knowledge that somewhere in Japan there’s a photo of me, at age 9, standing in front of George Washington’s house. I hope the picture is framed and hanging on a wall and that its mysteries remain unsolved for all who gaze upon it.
Speaking of Japan and framed mysteries, my husband, Frank, had a keepsake collage assembled at the framing counter of a Michaels store to commemorate our trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima in 2018.
Behind the glass of the frame, a reproduction of a woodblock print and a photo of Kinkaku-ji (aka the Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto are displayed next to a wooden plaque with a prayer written on it in Japanese. You can buy these little boards (ema) at Shinto shrines—only you’re supposed to leave the thing hanging at the shrine for the spirits to receive your prayer, not put your prayer behind glass at a Michaels.
Then again, Frank and I have no idea whether the prayer was ever answered or not because neither of us knows what the writing on the little board means. I am sorry to report that my knowledge of Japanese never progressed beyond counting to 10.
Frank loved Japan, due in large part to the almost pathological punctuality of the country’s trains and buses. As someone who regards tardiness as a character defect on par with an affinity for strangling kittens, he felt Japan to be his spiritual homeland.
I liked Japan, too, but a mishap on the second day of the trip marred my experience. Striding across our hotel room in my heedless American style, I rammed my right foot into a piece of furniture, causing the pinkie toe to swell up, turn crimson, and hurt like hell for the rest of the vacation.
I know that’s not Japan’s fault. But those temples and shrines we visited always seemed to require endless hobbling down winding paths and climbing up pyramids of stone steps. Limping along with my umbrella as a cane, I might have called to mind some ancient seer on a pilgrimage, but I promise you my thoughts were far from holy.
I don’t know where my spiritual homeland is, but I’m sure it has fewer stairs.