Home > Stories > Tokyo to Kumano: Back to the Roots
Tokyo to Kumano: Back to the Roots

June 4, 2013

By Alena Eckelmann

She called on Saturday for no particular reason and on Monday she arrived at the nearest train station, two hours from my home by car.  Noriko is a 75 Japanese woman and she is my mother-in-law-to-be. Her son, my Japanese partner, was working on that day, so it was up to me, the home-based freelancer, to pick her up.

She had traveled from Kyushu to Kumano on the train, changing trains twice, but showed no signs of tiredness. On the contrary, she was in very good spirits. She talked for the whole time on our way back, ignoring the fact that I did not understand all that she said. It didn’t matter. She wanted to say what she had to say and she felt good in my company– that much was soon clear.

I have to admit that I was a bit annoyed about her sudden arrival and about the prospect of having her stay for two weeks. Based at home and working freelance seems to give the impression that I have time on my hands and can easily fit in the visit of a family member. I wasn’t even asked, and now here she was. She reminded me of my own parents.

I have been living away from “home” for twenty years now and my parents have gotten used to me staying at their place twice a year at max. When I am there, they fully occupy my day and require all my attention. Sometimes we enjoy day trips, but mostly we spend time talking, eating, having an occasional beer, doing the daily chores of over-seventy-year-old pensioners, and simply being together.

Like my own parents, Mrs. Egashira (that’s Noriko) mainly wanted to talk and do daily activities like cooking, laundry and shopping together rather than any grand sightseeing. I am used to doing these things in a rush and then getting on with “work” but here I was, slowing down and moving at her pace, listening to her talk about her life and family.

There is a lot of self-reflection on her part: Have I been a good mother? Have I raised my children well? She ponders whether she should have done this or that better. She asks for my opinion: has her son turned out well? I am biased of course, so my replies are vague. In fact, she does not really wait for my answer, but continues on with her life review; I am her captive audience.

This is quite in line with how she has lived her life for the last forty years. Her husband died early from cancer, leaving her with two young children. She followed her passion for playing the piano and set up as private piano teacher in a small provincial town, supporting her family with her earnings. She not only managed, but became a strong woman in the process. Last year she was diagnosed with blood cancer. Rather than giving in, she took charge and managed to get herself through treatment. When she came to visit, her hair had grown back and she was as lively as a young girl.

My own parents lost their first child in a tragic accident and managed to pick themselves up and start again, all without counseling. They turned to prayer and conversation with God. This, and a resourceful and pragmatic “can do” attitude also got them through 45 years of socialism with all its challenges.

I saw my father take apart old cars and put the parts together to build our car. The cooler broke down several times, but otherwise that car worked well. I saw my mother plant vegetables in spring, water them every day in summer, harvest them in autumn and conserve them for the winter. We raised chickens, ducks, rabbits and two pigs each year, which supplied our family with meat or with the means to barter for something else we might need that was not easily available in shops. What the animals needed for food, we got from the surrounding meadows and forest,  and part of our own meals came from the forest as well. Wild mushrooms, herbs and berries were all there, just waiting for anyone with time and patience to collect.

Listening to my parents and to Mrs. Egashira, I see people who take life as it comes. They are not depressed and they don’t wait for someone else to make decisions for them. They take action themselves. They move ahead and through whatever life throws in their path. They manage by using the resources available to them, however scarce those resources may seem. They are not passive consumers but active creators. Most of all, they are believers – trusting in their own strength, in life, and in whatever higher forces there are around us.

Reflecting on their life stories convinces me that most times we don’t need a guru to teach us how we should live better; rather, we need to listen to our elders. They may not be perfect, but there is much wisdom in their basic strategies for coping with life. Going back to our roots and finding the core of goodness and wholeness in the circle of family can help us not only enrich our personal transitions, but also mend damaged relations on a wider scale as well.

Take the time to open your ears and your heart as well; these days we may not do that often enough. Listening to the stories of those who came before us and connecting the threads can help us understand our own roots and get a glimpse of our place in the bigger picture.  After all, though it might often seem so, we’re not alone in this world.

This is the fourth installment of Alena’s monthly column for Embrace Transition – Tokyo to Kumano. See here for part one, here for part two and here for part three.


About the author: Alena Eckelmann grew up in East Germany, and it has been change and transition ever since the Berlin Wall came down. She took up Southeast Asian studies without having ever been in Asia. Thanks to some scholarships, she spent over a year in Vietnam. Next she went to London to learn English from scratch with no money in her pocket but then made London her home for nine years. She worked herself up the corporate ladder to manager position and executive training in Japan before changing direction and embarking on full-time aikido and weekend taiko training. Alena has been working freelance as a writer and researcher in Japan for several years now with second thoughts twice, which took her back to the corporate sector in Tokyo. Currently she lives in the Kumano Mountains where she tries to ‘do less and be more’ while pursuing journalistic, touristic and spiritual projects. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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