With school on the horizon here in the UK – a September 25th start for Uni – I have been reflecting on my son’s summer travels. From inter-railing through Europe, crossing the Atlantic to Boston, eventually travelling on to Vermont and Niagara Falls, then back to London for the Notting Hill Carnival, and finally despite a UK-wide air traffic meltdown, to Carcassonne.
When the idea of inter-railing first came up, I hesitated, thinking of all that could go wrong, think the France train attack, etc, and I definitely failed to remember that I, too, travelled solo – internationally – at his age. However, as I watched the film Oppenheimer, the epic bio on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who figured largely in the invention of the atomic bomb, I powerfully, electrically, recalled my travels to Japan in 1977.
Over the moon, when my Uni called to say I was going to Japan, I danced around the kitchen – thinking of Kyoto and Nara, the ancient capitals, not far from Hirakata-shi, where I would attend Kansai Gaidai University. I imagined pagodas, cherry blossoms and (of course) udon and sushi. My father often shared his love of Japan (Okinawa), where he spent his birthday (August 14th), the day before Japan surrendered. “If we hadn’t dropped the bomb,” he would say, “I wouldn’t be here,” which of course meant neither would I.
Flying into Japan proved magical. Instantly foreign, my meal included chopsticks, and the stewardesses wore kimonos. All shoji screens and tatami mats, with rich silk mattresses and wooden pillows, my room proved exotic. I purchased a pair of geta, a sort of flip-flop on a wooden platform. I was never going home. What I hadn’t counted on though was the western-style classroom, where I was meant to learn katakana, hiragana, kanji and Chinese from day one, Monday to Friday, five hours at a clip – immersion. While today I regret not taking up Chinese, or furthering my Japanese, what I don’t repent is the friendship I struck up with a New Yorker, a first generation Japanese-American, who also had a penchant for travel.
Lucky for me, she mostly spoke Japanese. We weighed the odds: sit in a western-style classroom learning to write a language I most probably would never use, or travel? Trekking of course won out, and while I thought I might wiggle out of that bright red F on my transcript (fake my way through the exam), we hopped on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, and hit the open road. In Kyushu we enjoyed a turquoise sea, in Kyoto cherry blossoms, and in Matsumoto an avalanche.
When viewing Oppenheimer what came to mind (sadly) in only a momentary flicker of a distressed (post bomb) student running in excruciating pain was my visit to Japan in 1977 and in particular, The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. That day, traveling, I felt as usual my buoyant self with blue skies, sun shining. My friend slowed as we approached the museum. Unaware of the poignancy to her, I approached the doors with jubilation – Hiroshima as victory – “if we hadn’t dropped the bomb…”
The presentation and moment remain emblazoned. While oblivious in ’77 to the word Peace in the museum’s name, today it is not lost on me. My friend, unable to go beyond the first few cases, where images and artifacts of students in melted, vaporised uniforms beggared belief, turned back, apologising, “I lost family.”
I carried on, and while I am told that growing up is a gradual process, my trip through The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum proved otherwise. I grew up in an instant. Walking beyond the entrance, I viewed shadows of humans and buildings now lost left permanently on walls still standing, before and after shots of a women’s dresser, pins in a porcelain vase now solidified into a rock fist. Children burnt beyond recognition. I saw Hell.
Finally, outside, where I could breathe I found my friend. Neither of us spoke. We walked for ages until gratefully the beauty of Japan came calling, and we made our way back to Hirakata-shi. While she had no one to answer to regarding escapades that took us far and wide, I did. “An F,” the Japanese teacher kept saying to me. Yes, I nodded, “Hai.” A most important F, I thought. My inter-railing on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, took me deep into an adulthood that demonstrated the beauty and horror of a great and impenetrable life. In Japan, where we dropped the bomb, I grew up.
So, yes, in the middle of Oppenheimer, with its regretably only momentary flicker of the real terror and devastation of the atomic bomb, I knew my son must also set sail, inter-rail, discover for himself the complexities of our all too wonderful world. My only job, as the prophets of old said, as his mum, was to bless him, love him and let him move on – to uncover, discover the mystery of life: to grow up.
So I wish you a September, perhaps a new school year, of blessings, and of course, letting go and growing up.