I'll be 82 in August and am currently planning a solo, month-long trip to Japan.
This is far from my first visit. In fact, my last was six years ago. I'm sure that as a traveler of a certain age, I will be confronted again with what happened last time.
"Ikutsu desuka?" How old are you?, they wanted to know.
It's the question this then-76-year-old was asked over and over during my pilgrimage. A pronounced paunch and jowls complement the image of an old man careering around the country, dragging two bags holding over 80 pounds of stuff, onto subways, buses, trains and planes, covering the length of Japan from Yamaguchi in the south to Hokkaido in the north.
I detected at times a note of disbelief or even concern in these strangers' voices.
I lived in Tokyo 58 years ago, while in the U.S. Navy, working at Dai Nippon Printing on an assignment to produce two "cruise books" for my aircraft carrier. Living in a tiny mom-and-pop inn at the foot of the hill from the printing plant, I learned a few Japanese words each day and readily fell in love with the country, its customs and its people.
And that love has only grown. I stayed in touch with my two male colleagues and took Japanese language lessons upon returning home with a private sensei. I studied with her off-and-on for 20 years. I even took Japanese cooking lessons—I make a killer katsudon.
I returned in 1989 after a 30-year absence, tagging along on one of my wife Ross's business trips. What drew me back to Japan after another 20 years was studying for over a year with a new sensei. The natural outcome from this effort was to go back again and take full advantage of my growing fluency.
As manners and introductions are very important in the Japanese culture, I created a special meishi, the de rigueur card offered with both hands and a low bow anytime you meet someone for the first time. Mine answered the three basic questions strangers want to know: your name, where you're from and what you do.
Mac Francis – New York City
Author, Fly Fisher, Single Malt Expert
Student of Japanese Culture and Traditional Crafts
On one side, it was hand-brushed in Japanese calligraphy; on the other, typeset in English in an appropriate font.
So, in one month—handing out my meishi at the slightest provocation—I went from Tokyo to Kamakura, Yamaguchi, Iwakuni, Osogoe, Tokuyama, Kyoto, Fushimi, Ohara, Osaka, Sakai City, Sapporo, Otaru, Yoichi, Kanazawa and back to Tokyo, reporting daily dispatches to family and friends back home.
These communiqués served several purposes: they kept me from having to retell again and again the details of my journey after I got back home; they were a way to thank those I had left behind, for their indulgence and taking on my responsibilities; and they will rekindle warm memories in years to come.
It was raining my last day before heading home. At a farewell dinner with Japanese fly fishers, Yuri, a new friend who had accompanied me on several jaunts around Tokyo, said, "The sky is crying because you are leaving."
So much of Japanese art, poetry and simple daily communication ties nature to human emotion. They connect with the morning mists over Mt. Fuji, with the rain slanting against the geisha's umbrellas as they negotiate the narrow byways of Gion, with the snows that impeded the Edo-bound daimyo lords on the Tokaido road.
My last report to loved ones read: "Among the many attractions of Japan, its culture and people that drew me in over 50 years ago, one of the strongest was this love of natural beauty. It has stayed with me since and most likely will pull me back again—regardless of age."
I leave in September.