Karin Muller served in the Peace Corps, later entered corporate life in the acceptable dress fashion with dog and man, ditched it all to travel the world strapped to a video camera in search of life's meaning, or is it the meaning of life. Finding that meaning can be illusive and adventurous, but still not satisfying.
Ms. Muller's decision to go to Japan had to do with Judo (the only activity that kept her sane, relaxed and at peace). She needed to go deeper – focus, harmony, wa – and Japan was it. With the help of Murata-san, she enters the pulse of Japanese society, well, almost. Getting into the pulse of Japanese society. I have to repeat that because unless you are born to Japanese parents in Japan, you never really "get into" Japanese culture – period.
Here is Karin Muller living in Fujisawa in the home of her host father and judo instructor, Genji Tanako, his wife, Yukiko and daughter, Junko. The family is in its "matchmaking" period. In the hands of Ms. Muller's fine writing, observant eye and delicious sense of humor, we go through the ups and downs of a rebellious teenager fighting/not fighting the traditional way of finding an acceptable husband. It's one slice of the culture pie.
Another slice is the author's introduction to sumo wrestling via the stable, where the wrestlers train, eat and breathe sumo. Their lives are regimented, controlled and regulated to the finest detail; much like most of Japanese society. Nothing is left to chance, the whim of the moment. The road to success is well marked and has been for centuries.
Ms. Muller meets Masamune-san, a sword maker whose family has been in the blacksmith business since the 13th century – not a thriving enterprise nowadays. Wait. The business is not the means of survival, rather it is the avenue to hold on to tradition, a family's pride, the soul of who you are. Masamune-san does what he must to live in order to do what he loves – making swords. Wait again. Roberto, originally from Brazil, wants to be head sword maker. Why, how he may or may not reach his goal, what he does to help his prospects, the "long" wait (10 to 15 years) shows what dedicated, focused and patient people go through to attain their heart's desire. Absolutely remarkable, make that highly inspirational because honor, courage, self sacrifice, discipline and excellence are involved.
There are many stories within stories. One I especially enjoyed was about Uwajima, a coastal town in Shikoku where "gateball" is popular among a group of elderly women, "kind of high speed croquet played on hard-packed sand, each game limited to fifteen minutes". The writer is invited to participate. She does, but decides to cheat to save face, provoking the women "to laugh, double over, leaning on their mallets to keep from falling down". Did I mention these ladies are older, average age 76? We see they are happy, connected in worship and active in their community. Another moving story!
Much to her host family's disgust, Karin Muller goes off to observe Yamabushi, a 400-year-old cult where men walk on burning coals. She is the first ever foreigner to follow this annual pilgrimage. Life in the Tanaka household moves from bad to worse to expulsion. Our author leaves, hurt and sad, and tries to view the situation "outside" herself – truly a gift. Culture, personalities play roles in what happens to others, to us. With understanding and confidence, an individual's limits to evolving and growth are limitless and so, Ms. Muller leaves the family for her own path.
We follow Ms. Muller to Osaka where her living arrangements change drastically, but where she learns still more of unknowable Japan.
Karin Muller dutifully thanks those who helped her in this journey of travel and writing – both the sung and the unsung. "Then there are those people who you meet on the road. They have no reason to help a stranger, but they do anyway, sometimes going to unbelievable lengths for someone they may never see again." Try counting the number of travelers who have known little kindnesses, gestures of encouragement, a meal, a listening ear to carry them on when they thought they could not. Perhaps you see yourself.
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