Saturday, January 18, 2014

Memories of Japan: My Friends in the Port Cities of Yokohama and Kōbe

Maps of Kobe and Yokohama
Today is Saturday, January 18, 2014.

I have fond memories of both Kōbe and Yokohama.  Two of my very best friends in Japan lived there.  

The two cities have a lot in common with each other, as well as with other port cities in the world.  There is just something about port cities that sets them apart from other cities.  I can't put my finger on, but I felt it, just the same. Both Osaka and Tokyo are technically "port cities," but their ports are not their main claim to fame, so they don't have this same feeling.  (I felt the same vibes in San Francisco, California.) Yokohama is Japan's largest, but second-busiest port, while Kōbe is Japan's fourth largest of five main ports.

Kobe at night – Port Tower is the red building on the left.
Both cities are large, but have a small-town feel.  Kōbe's population in 2011 was 1,545,410, while Yokohama boasted a population of  3,697,894 in 2012.  Both towns are surrounded by hills or mountains.  (This is a geographical feature they share with the city of Kamakura, as well as the U.S. city of San Francisco.)  Both Yokohama and Kōbe are stops on the Shinkansen Bullet Train, as well as Japan Railways.

Yokohama at night
Both cities serve as capitals of their respective prefectures (states).  Kōbe, in the Kansai Region, is capital of Hyōgo Prefecture.  Yokohama, in the Kantō Region, is capital of Kanagawa Prefecture.  While Yokohama doesn't have any particular product to brag about, Kōbe is the home of world-famous Kōbe beef, which is supposed to be especially tender and well-marbled. (The secret is that the steers are fed beer!)

Kōbe beef
Both cities are located near larger cities.  Kōbe is 19 miles west of Osaka, while Yokohama is 22.5 miles south of Tokyo. Both cities boast a Chinatown area, just like San Francisco. 
Chinatown in Kōbe
Chinatown in Yokohama
Both cities have a number of sister city relationships.  Kōbe's sister cities include Seattle, USA, Marseille, France, Rio de Janeiro, Brazio, Faisalabad, Pakistan, Riga, Latvia, Brisbane, Australia, Barcelona, Spain, Haifa, Israell, and Incheon, South Korea.  Kōbe also has "sister ports" Rotterdam, Netherlands and Seattle.   The city also has affiliations with Tianjin, China, Philadelphia, USA, Terni, Italy, and Daegu, South Korea.

Yokohama's sister cities include Constanta, Romania, Frankfurt, Germany, Lyon, France, Manila, Philippines, Mumbai, India, Odessa, Ukraine, San Diego, USA, Shanghai, China, Vancouver, Canada, and Aguascalientes, Mexico.  

Yokohama Marine Tower
Both cities have towers that are fairly famous.  Kōbe Port Tower, completed in 1963, is a lattice structure made of red steel and decorated with lights at night.   Yokohama has several towers.  The one I thought of as the Yokohama Port Tower is now called the Marine Tower.  Inaugurated in 1961, it is also a lattice tower with an observation deck, from which you can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day.  There are three towers on buildings in Yokohama that are unofficially called the Jack, the Queen, and the King.  They are on Memorial Hall (Jack), the Customs Office (Queen) and the Kanagawa Prefectural Office (King).  The story is that if you go to a place in town where you can see all three towers at once,  your wish will be granted.  One version of the story has it that a foreign sailor's wish came true after viewing the three towers.  Another version says the towers are lucky because they all withstood the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.  A newer tower, called the Yokohama Port Symbol Tower was opened in 1986. This one, of white stone, with a giant stainless steel statue of a scallop in front of it, actually sends signals to ships. 

From left to right, the Jack, Queen and King towers in Yokohama
 Both cities are home to manufacturing companies.  Kōbe is headquarters of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Shipbuilding Company, Proctor and Gamble Asia, and Nestlé Japan Ltd.  Yokohama is the home of shipping, semiconductor and biotechnology companies, as well as auto maker Nissan.

*** *** *** *** ***

Bachu at her high school graduation - she was
wearing a sari.  Photo: Bachu Sterling
Kōbe was the home of my friend Bachu, whom I met while she and I were teaching English at Berlitz in Osaka.  Bachu's parents hailed from India.  The family was Parsee, which is a group of people originally from Iran.  The Parsees' religion is Zoroastrianism, and for this reason, they emigrated from Iran to avoid persecution during the time when Muslim invaders were in the process of conquering the country.  (When the Muslims invaded, the dominant religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism.)  With two other men from India, Bachu's father ran a restaurant called Gaylord in Kōbe, and there I learned to love tandoori chicken, various types of curry and flat nan bread.  Bachu grew up in Japan, so she spoke Japanese fluently.

The earthquake claimed devastated Kōbe.
We didn't know it when we met, but we were both interested in spiritual growth in this lifetime.  Bachu's path eventually led her to live in an ashram in India for a while, but she returned to Japan to marry a Japanese American man that she had been in love with for a long time. I had lost contact with her, but when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kōbe in 1995, I saw some of the first newsfeeds from Japan on the news, and I could read the Japanese (which was later removed), saying that this was the Chuo-ku area of Kōbe, and that Chuo-ku was the area hardest hit.  When I saw the devastation, I cried for days, thinking that my sweet friend, Bachu, might have perished in fear and agony.  Knowing that Bachu's husband still worked for Berlitz, I called the Berlitz headquarters in Tokyo and asked them to find out about Bachu and her husband.  

I remember traveling on this elevated expressway
when I was in Japan. 
When she was told I had asked about her, she emailed me, and I was relieved to find out they were OK, although they lost their house and their restaurant, and Bachu's mother-in-law had also lost her home in the earthquake.  As well, the Berlitz School where Bachu's husband worked was damaged beyond repair. They left the city and went out to the country to stay with relatives for a few weeks.  I don't know how it worked, exactly, but I think the Japanese insurance companies made some pretty big payouts after that earthquake!  Bachu and her husband got a new house, and her mother-in-law came to live with them.  They got a new location for the restaurant, and of course the Berlitz School in Kōbe was also relocated to a new building.  

The earthquake struck at 5:46 a.m. on January 17, 1995.  It measured 6.8 on the Richter scale (compared with magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Tohoku and the corresponding 7.1 earthquake in Fukushima.)  Yesterday marked the 19th anniversary of the quake.  Ceremonies were held early Friday to pray for the Souls of the 6,434 people who lost their lives.  

Bachu and I still don't communicate that often, but we are Facebook friends and manage to message each other once in a while. Bachu is one of those friends with whom I can go for long periods without communicating, but when we get together again, it's as if we were never apart.  She is definitely a Soul Sister of mine, and I am blessed to be her friend.

*** *** *** *** *** 

My pregnant friend Jane and myself, spending the
day walking around Yokohama.
My friend in Yokohama was Jane.  It's incredible when I think about it, but Jane was in my class when my family lived in tiny Rock Rapids, Iowa, a town that is only about 45 minutes' drive away from where I live now.  That graduating class had only about 85 kids, and not only were Jane and I in Japan at the same time, Jane's best high-school friend, Martha, was also living there on Yokota Air Force Base, with her husband, who hails from the Philippines.  At one point, the three of us actually had a reunion when Jane and I went out to Yokota to see Martha and her family.  It was pretty amazing for three girls from small-town Iowa to meet in Japan.

Jane, Martha, and myself at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan.
 My sister Cindy was friends with Jane's sister, Kay, and it was Kay who told Cindy that Jane was in Japan.  Cindy told me where Jane lived, and I contacted her.  Jane's uncle, Paul, had married a Japanese woman, and it was Paul who had got Jane connected with a school in Yokohama, where she was teaching English.  We had a lovely reunion in Yokohama one weekend, but I could see that Jane wasn't really happy.  

"Where is the love?" she asked me, wistfully.  

Yokohama Royal Park Hotel, with its magnificent view of Mt. Fuji
When her teaching contract was finished, she returned to the United States and promptly met her husband, Tom, who had never traveled out of the state of Iowa.  Jane wanted to marry Tom, but felt that it was important that Tom experience some time in Japan so that he could understand her better.  Tom agreed to put his life on hold for two years and accompany Jane to Japan, if she would marry him right away.   After the wedding, Jane was able to get herself and her husband jobs teaching English at different universities.  Hers was in Yokohama, and his was in  Tokyo.  They visited me while I was still living in Osaka, and I visited them in Tokyo after I separated from my husband.  

It was wonderful to have friends from the past in the Tokyo area when I separated, because there I was, all alone in the largest city in the world.  When I moved to Tokyo, Jane and Tom told me that they were planning to go back to the USA in a few months, and they were hoping to "get pregnant" as soon as possible.  Tom told me how he was counting his wife's periods, and I had to laugh a bit at his eagerness. 

Yokohama Port Symbol Tower
My marriage lasted almost exactly seven years, and I knew how frustrating it could be for a couple to want kids and not be able to conceive.  My husband and I had tried for months to conceive, to no avail, until we found out that both of us had issues.  (The statistics say that the issue is the male's problem 30% of the time, the female's problem 30% of the time and a problem for both partners 30% of the time, but in Japan, they always, always test the woman first.) I had an excruciatingly painful test in which dye was injected into my body so that they could determine whether my fallopian tubes were blocked.  They weren't.  I was then given hormones and told how to use the basal body thermometer and chart my temperature each morning before arising.  When nothing happened after one month, the doctor told me he would not give me any more hormones.  Looking down, he mumbled, "I'm sorry."  He did not suggest that my husband be tested – you just don't do that in Japan.  My husband went to a urologist, where they ascertained that his equipment was in working order, but he was shooting blanks.  They gave him hormones, but he refused to take them.  He went into denial and kept telling our friends that I was pregnant. When friends called to congratulate me, I told them that I was not, either, pregnant, which led them to believe that I lost the baby – which, of course, meant that I was "at fault."  This was the beginning of the end of our marriage.

Having just tried to have a baby, myself, I knew some things that Tom and Jane didn't.  I knew that no mater how "regular" a woman is, everybody is different, and you have to watch basal body temperature closely.  I had learned how to use a basal body thermometer and knew how to ask for one in Japanese at the pharmacy, so I took Jane to get one, and when we brought it home, I instructed Tom in its use.  Tom is one of those detail-oriented types who loves a challenge like this, so he constructed his own chart and made sure that Jane recorded her temperature every day before she got out of bed.  

The result was that Jane got pregnant a couple of months later, and she was still able to fly when it was time for them to return to the United States.  Although it hurt some to know that Tom and Jane were able to conceive a child so easily when my husband and I hadn't been able to, I was glad that at least someone got their wish.  

Jane and Tom had a boy and a girl who are now adults, with their own children. They now live in northern Minnesota. I don't see them often, but I do think from time to time about Jane and the way our lives intersected.  :-)

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