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Western Invasion - The Iliff Incursion

a narrative by Wendy

In the late summer of 2007, Curt and I went to Japan to visit my expatriate folks. I like to travel and, thanks to a childhood in the military, I have traveled here and there, including a memorable few months in Taiwan more than 25 years ago. Curt has been to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Aside from the daunting aspect of the 11 hour flight, we were excited, nervous, curious, worried and determined when facing the trip. Would we do something horribly rude without meaning to? Would we embarrass ourselves? Would we get lost? Would we be uptight and stressed out? There was only one way to find out.

We made a few requests for sight seeing on our trip – we wanted to see a castle, natural or national parks, ride the bullet train, see Tokyo, touch the far west coast of the Pacific Ocean, and maybe see a shrine or two. We would have 11 days, a railroad pass and one suitcase each. I don’t know what visions danced in Curt’s head as our airplane traveled west. I was picturing tropical vegetation, bamboo fences, glass topped concrete walls and spiders larger than Curt’s hand.  

OK, I hadn’t done my homework very well. Japan is a series of islands; a long series of islands. The northern part lies in a sub alpine climate zone and heading south, one will transition through boreal, temperate, sub tropical and tropical climate zones. My folks live in the temperate zone in the northern part of the main island, the Tohoku region. So, where we went, the vegetation was not tropical though the humidity was certainly higher than we experience in Colorado. Also, Japan is a modern progressive country that has experienced cultural stability for – well, forever, from a western perspective. So, no concrete walls topped with broken glass, either. I did look.

The sun seemed pinned in place in the sky as we traveled, though the day did change somewhere along the way, we were now living in tomorrow. In a way, it’s like having a premonition and déjà vu at the same time – this is what I am doing tomorrow. So, though we left Seattle around 2:30 PM on August 30th and arrived in Japan around 5:30 PM on August 31st, there was no darkness; until we landed. Then the sun went down fast.

The first thing I noticed was how small all the Japanese seemed. In the US, I’m average in height and weight and see people bigger and smaller than me everywhere. In Japan, a few people might be my size, but the majority of them were smaller. And they all seem very lean and fit. Western eyes have some adjusting to do, that’s for sure.

My mom met us at the airport, sped us through currency exchange, acquiring our rail passes and first train tickets and onto the train to Tokyo. At Tokyo station she told us to follow her and not make eye contact as we might end up wheels up in a ditch somewhere. Somewhat bemused, we plunged into Tokyo Station and I for one was somewhat taken aback by the sheer numbers of people. Following my mom’s fast moving heels and towing my bag, I cut through the crowd without causing a serious pile up and we made our train connection to Koriyama where my mom and Chas live. 

Ah, the bullet train – fast, clean, on time, comfortable… what is not to like? We rode the bullet trains several times during our visit and it never got old. At Koriyama Station, Chas met us, loaded us into what seemed to western eyes to be quite a small car – actually good sized for the country – and jumped behind the wheel on the wrong side and drove us home; on the wrong side of the road. I was riding shotgun and still marveling at the extremely cute looking small cars and trucks and roads; and the driving lanes in the roads. At regular intervals, Chas assured me we were on two way streets and all was well so I am guessing I must have looked a bit doubtful about the chances of our arriving at their house in one piece. My personal vehicle is a long bed dually pickup which wouldn’t have fit down some of those streets in any direction, let alone two.

We arrived, toured their large and comfortable and fascinatingly desert- southwest- meets -Japan home. The tatami mats, barely hip high kitchen sink, bathroom that the entire room was a shower and the powdered milk whispered of new experiences to come. It wasn’t late, but we had been up for something like 24 hours and happily collapsed for the night.

The next day was for getting oriented. Chas led us off on a jogging tour of Koriyama, pointing out landmarks, talking about traffic, and showing the rice paddies and irrigation system that drives the local economy. The three of us running down the road drew many a close look but everything we saw made me look twice. The tiered cemetery we passed, the abundance of foliage, the houses, the people, the cars, the birds… my western eyes were bouncing around like ping pong balls and all I could think was, “I am here. I am really here.”

We visited a mountain village to view the papier-mâché crafts and the Miharu horse



hiked the crater of Azuma-kofuji volcano, hidden in the mist....

and the edges of the Five Colored Lakes, blinding blue under the late summer sun

rode in a train painted like the local demi-deity – the Akabeko

saw Tsurugajo castle at Aizu Wakamatsu and walked where samurai had lived and fought

saw a Serow on a forested hillside on Honshu


went to Nikko and walked among the shrines, marveling at the artwork, the color, the decoration and the profound, reverent silence

learned the benefits of wearing shoes you can slip into instead of tie

had some fantastic meals – curries and noodles and shrimp and rice


saw the pine islands of Matsushima, touched the Pacific Ocean, viewed the local wood inlay crafts and learned that rolling in the duck means it’s time to go home

watched TV in Japanese – learning the use of the English button

visited a local park and toured the green house and found – saguaro cactus

went shopping at the mall, the grocery store and the home improvement store

marveled at the flavors of the fruit – grapes that would make you cry, and peaches from the gods

found curry flavored Pringles

marveled at the small portion sizes – ½ cup of ice cream, a golf ball sized pastry



toured Hakone by train, bus, boat, cable car and incline train and

smelled the sulphur from the water boiling from the ground

observed people eating fried squid on a stick

viewed the street theater of the Tokyo youth with careful attention and a complete lack of comprehension

learned not to eat while walking and not to point the soles of our feet at anyone


saw centuries old trees propped up with wooden beams

traveled by subway all around Tokyo – ate at the Hard

visited the Oriental Bazaar, a seven story toy store

so the branches wouldn’t break

Rock Café

and the Meiji Shrine


stayed on the 35th floor of a 40 story hotel in Tokyo and could not see to the end of the city

discovered an amazing Indian restaurant

shopped at a pearl jewelry store that was the entire fifth floor of a building that was about eight stories high and one room wide in the Roppongi district of Tokyo


saw Hello Kitty in every place we went in every local variety. The Hello Kitty with wood inlay, the papier-mâché Hello Kitty, the Hello Kitty wearing a sulfur-boiled black egg, the Hello Kitty in a kimono, the Hello Kitty with samurai sword

assiduously collected souvenirs and gifts for family back home


enjoyed the vast variety of vending machine offerings – canned coffee, milk, bowl of noodles, and pre packaged sandwiches. I remembered the joys of powdered chocolate in powdered milk – not quite chocolate, not quite milk

rediscovered my favorite drink from Taiwan – yogurt juice in the convenient 1/3 cup size

couldn’t stop being astonished at the clothing worn by the women – dresses over jeans, four inch platform shoes and horizontally striped tights under baby doll dresses

discovered the national flavor is Green Tea


never saw Mt. Fuji

didn’t get lost

learned to say hello, and good morning,



goodnight, please, thank you,

  you are welcome, excuse me and peach

weren’t uptight and stressed out

didn’t get horribly embarrassed and

weren’t horribly rude.

Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and courtesy and graciousness. The adults were determined not to be overly curious but the children loved to watch us.

The return trip was long, long, long. We left Tokyo in the rain on a bus to Narita.

The flight east plunged us into darkness early and though we were enroute “overnight” we landed in San Francisco the same day we left Japan and arrived in Denver about one half hour after we left Narita.

I noticed how large and soft the people looked and how loud and pushy they were. How absurdly big the cars were, how fast they were going and how much space our roads took up. My car felt like a boat, I was driving on the wrong side of the car and the road and our food seemed colorless and boring and there was much too much of it. Colorado seemed huge and dry and the human population was randomly sprawled over the landscape. Global eyes needed time to adjust.

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