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readers' submissions


Pineapple Factories, Temples and Japanese Toilets

By Laila Sholtz-Ames

April 4, 2008

Sometimes it's hard spending time with family, especially those you barely know. But sometimes you have to travel across the world to find them.

A few years ago, my mother and I bought a tour book, a Japanese CD, new luggage and boarded a plane for Japan. Of course, it was entirely that simple and there was more to the story than the two of us looking to go on a vacation.

My older brother, Jason is a foreign service officer who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan back in 2005. He is married to Miluska and they have two young children, Jasoncito (almost four) and Jeremy (twenty months). At the time, they only had the older, Cito, who was about ten months and cute as a cherry. But the truth is, I barely knew them. I hadn't met Jason until her got married a few years earlier, and since then I had only met him a few times before.

To make things more interesting, my mother and I had never traveled outside of the continent and this looked like a-once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Up until this point, I knew three things about Japan: they had pollution, the people drank great tea and some wore kimonos (ancient Japanese dress).

So when I arrived in Okinawa and walked around the airport, I was disappointed to find how American it really was. Okinawa is now a military base, a city known for its World War II involvement than anything else. There is a site called “The Peace Park” where thousands of Japanese flung themselves off the cliffs to avoid being captured and surrendering to the Americans during World War II. Today, one can walk around the city and see many Air Force and Marine officers, the men with hair buzzed that perfect military cut and shirts that look perfectly ironed.

Okinawa is home to nearly two-thirds of the 40,000 American military personal, even though it only encompasses 1% of Japanese land. They say 85% of Japanese oppose the U.S. Involvement, but then you wouldn't know it by the way they smile and wave at the American tourists and occupants walking down the street.

When Jason picked us up at the airport, it was late at night, but it felt as if we could have been anywhere (Chicago, Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, no not San Francisco, not enough of a hippy feel).

In order to better understand my family, my brother is in his mid-thirties, over six feet tall, with dark hair and an athletic body. He went to the Air Force Academy and cared about important things like politics and global issues, but still enjoyed things like playing soccer, hiking and going kayaking (more on that later). He lifted our bags into the car as if they weighed nothing and we went to their house. Jason and Miluska lived in a one floor house, with several rooms overlooking a driveway on one side and a backyard on the other. It wasn't a bad house, with a kitchen and bedrooms, even enough for a bedroom where my mother and I stayed. Miluska came to greet us.

While Jason is over six feet, Miluska is about the opposite. A little taller than five feet, she is a petite woman who was born in Peru, but moved to Costa Rica with her family. Eventually she moved to California where she met Jason and they eventually got married in a Wine Vineyard. A native Spanish speaker, Miluska's English was by all accounts very good.

After briefly catching up, we all retired and awoke ready for a day of exploration in Japan. The first morning, Miluska went to lunch with friends and my mother and I were left with baby. This made me nervous. The truth is, I like babies. For years, I have babysat children of all ages. But her was a baby, not yet a year, who cried, made noises and was not potty trained, however, Jasoncito is an adorable baby and after playing with him in the living room, he was very polite and well-behaved. When Miluska came back home, we were able to visit some old Okinawa ruins and walk around.

The next day, Jason went to work at the Consulate office and Miluska, my mother, Jasoncito and I packed into the car and went to the Butterfly center and Pineapple factory. The Butterfly place was not unlike the one at the Desert Museum in Tucson, where one walks into a large room with different butterfly species. Jasoncito looks at the butterflies and I think about the time I was twelve and my father took me to the Natural History museum in New York to see the butterflies at that exhibit.

The butterflies looked very similar, despite the fact that we are in Japan, they were almost the same species. It was like people, even if you visit them in Japan, or New York, of Maine (where I'm from) they are the same people. I watched the butterflies as they flew around the arboretum, lifting their bodies effortlessly. I often think if could be anything, I would be a butterfly, because I could fly anywhere and be light as a feather. Even better, my whole family could become butterflies and we could all fly away together....

Of course the dream ended soon and we moved on to visiting the famous Japanese pineapple factory. This was the place where pineapple juice, wine, candy and everything else pineapple related was made. My mother and I took a tour in the golf cart that automatically drove around the outside of the factory, reconstructing the jungle. We then walk inside to the factory where we are treated to (free) pineapple juice. Lemon-pineapple, orange-pineapple, banana-pineapple, all different types poured into
dainty little cups.

In America, when there is free food and juice, it is usually in order to get someone to buy something, but with the women dressed in kimonos walking around, and a large quantity of pineapple products laying about, I think it was more about experiencing the Japanese culture than anything else. And part of that was encountering sugar cane candy. Sugar cane is what sugar is made out of before it is processed, so the taste is sweet, but not sickly sweet. I tried a piece, and then, because I like it so much, I tried some more. I couldn't help myself, between the pineapple and sugar cane, I think I could have very nearly caused myself to become somewhat intoxicated...over candy.

The next few days, I unfortunately did not feel well. Jason, Miluska and my mother and I went to a small restaurant where the waiters did not speak English and I remember Jason ordering a vegetarian meal for myself and my mother. It was noodle dish, which I didn't feel like eating, so I ended up drinking the broth and amazed at how we ended up with a good meal (Jason's Japanese is fairly good). I spent the rest of the evening sleeping.

By the time the weekend came and Jason was home from work, I was feeling well enough to take a kayak trip on the China sea. Both Jason and I had a passion for kayaking, he having lived in California with Ocean kayaking and me kayaking on fresh ponds. But the China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a chance for me craft my paddling skills and spend time with my brother. We start off paddling...and promptly run into a fishing line that was hanging off the bridge we had just paddled under. The fisher began cursing us in Japanese, raising his arms and glaring at us. Jason said a few words to him in Japanese and the man soon calmed down. We continued on our way.

I don't remember a lot of what we talked about. I mentioned my plans for the future (attending college, getting my drivers license, etc) and he told me about his job and living Japan and what he plans to do when they transferred him to Honduras after two years. The truth is, you don't really know someone after you have kayaked, but I felt like I knew my brother a little bit more, every time we spent a few days together. And if you strung them up, I don't think they would even equal a month.

After kayaking,my mother and I flew to Kyoto, which is an old city with a population of close to 1.5 million (more than all the people in the state of Maine). There are over 2,000 temples, but we saw the main ones, Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion that looked as if it were painted with gold, Ginkaku-ji, the Silver pavilion and Ryoan-ji, a temple with a rock garden and a restaurant that overlooked the temple. Is it possible that heaven might be like this?

Many school children would come to the temple, loudly walking by, like American children who might visit the Statue of Liberty and not know the cultural significance. But I was amazed. I was impressed by the friendliness of the people who knew we didn't understand English, but still helped us. I was impressed by the atmosphere and the beautiful nature of Japan. And I was surprised by the toilets. They are nothing more than glamorized holes in the floor, with pink slippers placed outside so the user can put on slippers whenever they have to use the facility. Squatting over the toilet might be good exercise, but it was something that I could have done without.

In the end, after two weeks, my mother and I went home. But it was those memories that you keep with you. I still talk with my brother and even though I know we'll never be really close, it's nice to know we have some usual and exciting adventures together. Still, I barely know him and I do hope that can change sometime in the future. Currently, Jason and Miluska are in Honduras and will go to back to the states after that, so perhaps we will visit them again. As for me, I still drink pineapple juice. But somehow, it just doesn't taste the same without the sugar cane.


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