So what kind of car does a Japanese multi-millionaire take for a Sunday morning drive?
A white Toyota Prius (I gather you don’t become a millionaire in Japan by wasting money on gas).
Shimotakehara-san had generously offered me a shiny black car and chauffeur for the day, but when he discovered that I was searching for kamikazes, he offered to come with me.
We sped along the green country roads of Kagoshima in the air-conditioned cool of his car. Tiny farms with gray terracotta roofs sat between neat square rows of rice and organized gardens. Big black crows hopped on the roadside. We chatted more comfortably, our second day together—he told me about his father, age 93, who with his mother, were still the leading heads of the family company. Every decision awaited their thumbs up or down. Right now he was trying to convince his parents to let him sell off his brother’s outrageously pricey pottery collection.
“We are running a business, not a museum! All that Chinese stuff needs to go. We can keep the Satsuma ware—that’s Japanese, but all these Chinese things make no money for us.”
He was silent, obviously troubled with business matters, then began again:
“Do you know that Toyota family only owns 4% of the equity shares o the Toyota company?” The information surprised him, even now, and he paused for my show of surprise, “And yet their family lives on forever with Toyota.”
Immortality. The elusive goal of all mankind really, but in Japan I have seen and felt a deeper expression of this universal want—to last forever, to remember well and be remembered in a good way.
For the next hour, Shimotakehara-san dispensed sound investment advice to me, based on his lifetime of doing business around the world. He was older, wiser, and filled with remarkable knowledge and understanding. What’s more, he had this haragei—the stomach art of knowing and communicating merely by feeling.
After so many twists and turns of the road, we turned into the small town of Chiran with its very special museum. It was my seventh museum in two days—I was breaking my own record.
I counted eight tour buses in the parking lot, by far the most Japanese tourists I had seen gathered in one spot in Japan. There were families with teenage children, old grandparents smiling next to young parents corralling their toddlers. The stream of happy native tourists moved towards the single-story concrete building in the middle of a very flat field.
Not only is Kagoshima the closest part of mainland Japan to Okinawa—it’s also very flat—flat enough to build a huge runway for fighter jets. From thence was born the Chiran Air Base, which became a strategic launch for air force attacks in the Pacific theater of World War II . . . including kamikaze.
Kamikaze means “divine wind” and it’s the American term used to describe the Japanese pilots who flew suicide missions towards the latter part of World War II. These “kamikaze” would load their planes with extra fuel and a 500-pound bomb, then aim and crash into the American ships or airfields in order to exact maximum destruction and casualties upon their enemy. From what I’ve heard and read, the American forces had a very difficult time understanding this warfare phenomenon, as the tactic ran against everything that was sacred to them and what they were fighting for, namely—life and freedom.
But in Japan, kamikaze pilots are not called kamikaze—they are called Tokko—the special attack forces of the Japanese air force. The divine wind of kamikaze refers to a typhoon that occurred in 1281, right at the moment of the Mongol invasion of Japan. This divine intervention by natural disaster saved Japan—and if you think about it long enough—determined such different paths of history for China and Japan. I thought of this legend of the typhoon—remembered the typhoon that I had experienced briefly in Hokkaido and then the Ru Guan bowl I had seen in the prized pottery collection the day before—the color of the sky right after it rains; the blue sky bowl that immortalized a color older than the divine typhoon that saved Japan from foreign invasion.
I was the only foreign visitor at the Kamikaze Peace Memorial Museum (its official name), let alone the only American, but I got my ticket like everyone else and followed the crowd. A large painting stood at the entry—a gigantic white-clouded canvas and in the middle, a dead kamikaze pilot floating upwards into the waiting arms of so many Japanese angels dressed in white.
In my long American life, I have never considered kamikaze pilots floating into a white paradise but suddenly, here was a painting to confront me with the idea that heaven is universal.
I pushed play on my little audio guide and listened to a Canadian-accented narrator bend history in favor of the Japanese.
“Japan sought to liberate all of Asia from oppressive colonial powers,” she began, and then, “Clearly, the United States had an unfair advantage due to their abundant natural resources,” and finally, the shocker, “The Emperor wanted to maximize the effects of his human resources and so began the kamikaze program.”
And that’s when I pressed “Stop.” I looked around at the several hundred Japanese tourists milling about, all engrossed in the museum displays—as if it was any average Wednesday afternoon at the Smithsonian.
But I wanted to laugh out loud, incredulously. I wanted to run and grab Shimotakehara-san away from the airplanes he was looking at and play him those lines again, “Can you believe this crap?” I wanted to ask him. I wanted somebody there to concur that the audio history was all rubbish and then track down whoever they used to do record the narration and revoke her passport.
But there was only me surrounded by hundreds of Japanese tourists who were all having their own different kind of moment. They all seemed reverent and touched by emotion.
The bulk of the museum consisted of display cases with last letters written by kamikaze pilots to their families. Some were scrawled on the backs of envelopes in pencil. Others painted in calligraphy on rice paper.
And so I ditched my audio guide and began to read each one.
Dear Mother and Father,
I was selected an honorable Kamikaze pilot now. Please rejoice at the news. I will sortie with bravery as my family’s honor. I fully appreciate that you took care of me for 20 years. Thankfully, I Tsugio can die for the emperor willingly.
That was written by 19-year old Tsugio Watanabe, who died on April 16th, 1945.
The nearly 3-month battle of Battle of Okinawa was the culmination of kamikaze attacks by the Japanese, and reading the dates on the letters, I could see how so many were sent off to die at this time. After 400 years, the Japanese were still sending warriors from Kagoshima to fight for Okinawa.
I read another letter, by 23-year old Captain Toshiaki Kajiki, who died on May 12, 1945. He addresses his entire family by name, and then says, “I will go. I will crash into the enemy ship with the soul of ancestors.”
I read letter after letter—it seemed that some of the kamikaze had advanced warning of their final mission, while others seem to have had very little warning at all. One thing they all seemed to have in common was tremendous guilt towards their parents. Nearly every letter I read showed some young man asking that his parents forgive him for being impious during his lifetime.
Almost all made great statements of bravado, like 18-year old Takamasa Senda, “Even after I have died, I will come back to life again and I will give my new life for the Emperor”
Mentions of the emperor were frequent, followed by testaments of conviction. From Shiori Harada, “I was born in the Emperor’s country and go to hell for him, but I feel happy!”
Others were slightly more tender, asking parents and siblings to make offerings at the shrine or to remember them fondly.
But underneath all of this, there was a sense of desperation. At least that was my feeling. To kill off your young men one by one—how can this not be a sign of true desperation? And all of them so young. I had always though of kamikaze as well-trained, older adult pilots, but the letters I was reading were from 17, 18, and 19-year-olds. None of them over the age of 25. These were kids.
Kids killing kids. The advantage I find of traveling with social media is that you stay connected to so many others throughout the world who can share their own knowledge and experience with you no matter where or when that is. As I tweeted my impressions of the kamikaze museum on Twitter, I received a message from one American follower, saying that her great uncle had been killed by a kamikaze pilot when he was only seventeen years old. And here I was, on the other side of the ocean, reading the letters of the kamikaze who had gone off to kill and be killed. Teenagers killing teenagers—that’s what it came down to.
According to the museum, there were 1,036 kamikaze pilots sent off on death missions in World War II (the Allies used a much higher figure). Of these, 439 flew out of Chiran Air Force Base in Kagoshima. It felt very odd for me to be there at this place—almost as if I was sneaking behind enemy lines. I was glad I had come but I couldn’t help feeling a little upset and awkward, as if there was some unanswered debt that had stacked up from so much suffering. But instead of anger, I found myself feeling sorry for all these poor kids.
The last letter I read struck for me for its honesty–Norio Kaneko, age 21, who wrote this final letter to his family, “Now I have nothing to write and I cannot.”
I personally cannot understand this unyielding devotion to the Emperor, I cannot understand the submission of one’s life to a stranger and the willingness to complete one’s life in such a fashion. But Norio’s letter—his last-minute writer’s block as he stood on the precipice of death—that was something I could understand, and it made me so sad.
The sadness continued as I walked out of museum and into the preserved barracks where the kamikaze stayed before leaving on their last flights. Their housing was quite spartan—four flat bed mats laid out on a raised wooden platform.
I stared at those empty beds and felt like I was staring at a row of empty plots in a cemetery. How did they do it? How did they sleep? If you knew that tomorrow you would die some violent death, how would you go to sleep at night? I wondered if they were silent, laying there in the dark, or did they talk to one another? Was it a conversation of warm consolation, or did they take a more Japanese approach, and discuss anything but the matter at hand?
I wanted to ask Shimotakehara-san but he was on his cell phone, busy with a work call. I waited for him to finish at the museum’s peace shrine—a Shinto temple like so many I have seen in Japan now. Everything I’ve experienced of Shinto so far in Japan seems the utter opposite of kamikaze—and yet both came out of the same Japan. In fact, many aspects of the kamikaze rite derived from Shinto spirituality.
Shimotakehara-san read my mind and indulged my American want to discuss the emotions of this place—my strange blend of anger, sorrow, disgust, compassion and guilt.
“I visited Pearl Harbor in Hawaii,” offered my host. “And you know, as a Japanese person, I felt quite guilty.”
We walked back to his Toyota Prius and drove down the road for lunch. On the short ride, Shimotakehara-san told me that during the time of the war, his now 93-year-old father had been selected to be a kamikaze. He was a naval pilot and specifically chosen for his intimate knowledge of the ocean south of Kagoshima. Lucky for him (and his future sons and business), the war ended before his mission took place.
Not five minutes from the kamikaze museum is the white-pillared storefront of Tea World—a cafe, small museum, and an oh-so-English gift shop merged into one very oddball tourist trap. What offset the symmetry of the proportional alabaster house was the vintage 1960’s red doubledecker bus that’s permanently fused to the left side of building. The vehicle is straight off the streets of London: Route 27 Richmond, announcing stops at Paddington, Notting Hill Gate, and Kensington High Street.
“Now just how the hell did they ship a doubledecker bus from London to Japan?” was my first thought. My second thought was, “Why?”
The inside of Tea World is a celebration of romantic Anglophilia to the max—pick any lovable English cliché and you’ll find it on a rack, for sale: Tip Tree jams and marmalades, an entire wall of tea cozies, the illustrated anthologies of Beatrix Potter, tweed hats, curved walking canes, Winnie the Pooh dolls, Welsh flags and Scottish flags, shortbread, and tons of tea. Among the explosion of Englishness was an original pastel print with a portrait of Queen Victoria, framed in gold. This is a woman who keeps popping up in my travels. In fact, I have begun to see Queen Victoria as my very own Where’s Waldo—This year I have spotted her in a bar on Tristan Da Cunha, at a park in Hamilton, Ontario, in a Falkland Islands sheep barn and now at a tea shop next to Japan’s kamikaze memorial.
Tea World is where Shimotakehara-san took me for lunch and when I saw the menu I couldn’t help chuckling. Minus the myriad tea and biscuits available, there were only three meal items, among them “English” chicken curry. Best of all, it looked and tasted exactly like you’d get in some corner take-away in the Midlands—Asian comfort food by way of England. Indeed, I enjoyed every nostalgic forkful of that English curry on Japanese rice. I tried explaining this to Shimotakehara-san but there was no need. He already knew all about English curries.
“I owned a restaurant in London for three years,” he announced. In Tottenham. I began to see my host as a man who had done it all, been everywhere, and knew everything. I listened to his stories from London as they were far more entertaining than mine.
After lunch we had tea—which is what Tea World is all about. Beneath the cheesy exterior and commercial cutesiness there was a serious tea business going on here and as the delicate tray emerged from the kitchen, I could see that this was no amateurish production.
The lady behind the tea and world of Tea World is Kyoko Tanaka, an unashamed anglophile and mother of four daughters. She is also a licensed tea instructor, which means a lot in Japan, where there are licenses and levels of certification for about every kind of everything in existence.
Kyoko’s first trip to England was to visit her second daughter, who had left Kagoshima to study in London. She fell in love with the country and all things English. Now she has an English son-in-law and a grandson halfway around the world, so she travels to Britain quite frequently.
Kyoko also travels to England to show her tea—tea that she has been growing in Kagoshima for the last ten years. Tanaka-san’s homegrown Benifuki tea is already world-renowned—in fact, she has won four consecutive gold medals at the annual Great Taste Awards in England. If she wins a fifth gold medal, she earns the right to serve her tea to Queen Elizabeth II.
Tanaka-san revealed all of this as the prized tea was presented on a platter. One glance and I could affirm that even the pickiest people in England would call this a proper tea: there was milk and was sugar, golden spoons, two saucers and two proper teacups, each more than half but less than two-thirds full with red, aromatic tea, with white dancing waves of steam playing off the eggshell-thin edge of the china.
I stared at the blank cup of tea with its blushing red liquid inside and then took one long hot sip of Satsuma history. Though Tanaka-san has only grown her tea for a decade, Benifuki is a registered tea dating back to the 1868—after Satsuma assisted in the downfall of the Edo shogunate and supported the Meiji restoration. Satsuma’s ruling Shimadzu family were eager businessmen and saw exporting tea to England as a sound business model—hence their rejecting the more traditional green tea of Japan in place of a kind of black tea that would sell well in Britain.
In Japanese, they do not say “black tea” but rather “red tea” and Benifuki tea is quite red—the liquid in my cup glowed a bright russet color and Tanaka-san explained that the word benifuki means “red, rich, and precious”. Her tea is 100% organic and hand-picked, then hand rolled and then fermented. From April until the fall, she harvests four to five yields, each with a slightly different flavor. The tea we were drinking was the first flush—the first leaves picked from the spring. For every 10 kilos of tea leaves picked, only 2 kilos of tea are produced.
I complimented Tanaka-san on her tea—it was so mild and floral and pretty. The whole experience of it was lovely. She smiled in return and showed me even more of her tea’s credentials—an illustrated encyclopedia of tea, written by one Jane Pettigrew, tea specialist.
She showed me Jane Pettigrew’s description of Benifuki tea: “Coppery red liquor surprisingly punchy with a sweet spiciness and warm tones of sun-warmed wood.”
I could definitely taste the sun-warmed wood. I took another sip to check. There it was, again: backyard patios in Orange County and the hot deck of a yacht and in Sardinia. Yes, I was drinking sun-warmed wood. Amazing.
I remembered my manners and again complimented my host. Such delicious tea. Then we discussed the weather. On this count, Tanaka-san actually prefers England.
“Kagoshima is too hot and humid,” she muttered, “But English weather is lovely!” Her face brightened at the thought of coolness. She then went on to compare Kagoshima to the Lake District. I thought about this—both are very green and both can be wet. The only difference is the sun, which for me, had shone nonstop in Kagoshima.
We discussed the sunshine as I drained the last slurp of sun-warmed wood from my cup. My guide in Kagoshima city had instructed me to slurp audibly as you finish your tea—it’s a sign of appreciation. She taught me many rules about drinking tea, including how I must compliment the host on her pottery—even turning it over to check the label.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I had been staring at the china throughout the entire episode of tea drinking, because it was truly one of a kind. Colored leaves, dancing evenly across the patterned cup, purple, red and amber.
I told Tanaka-san that I liked her china, and I meant it. I really did like her china. I even turned it over to check the name:
Mariko, it said.
Now that was actually a name that I knew. A designer—a big designer. I was drinking designer tea from designer cups. I shouldn’t have expected anything less—perfect presentation seems to be the rule in Japan. I studied the teacup closer–beneath the designer’s name I saw another 6-point font in gold that read, LONDON.
Mariko of London.
“Ah, your teacups are from England?” I inquired.
“Yes,” replied Tanaka-san, and then she told me all about Mariko Tadakuma, the young and talented Japanese artist who went to London in 1976 to work for the Liberty Company designing fabrics. She later broke away and introduced her own label, Mariko of London, which is outrageously popular in Japan.
The only catch is that today, “Mariko of London” is based in Tokyo. It is a hugely popular brand that feeds the country’s incessant anglophilia, even though their products—china included, is made in Japan.
I was drinking Japanese tea first developed to sell to English people from a teacup designed by a Japanese artist in England who actually made the china in Japan to sell to Japanese people who wanted English things.
On the wall above the table hung a framed original Mariko print—a personal gift from the artist to Tanaka-san. A very Mariko motif—baby angels (cupids) with white wings and white clouds next to a burst of gold stars—uncannily similar to the mural I had seen at the entrance of the kamikaze museum.
Shimotakehara-san took the scenic route back to the hotel, winding along the crest of Kagoshima’s green mountains and then descending to the intricate seashore lined with altitudinous palm trees. On the way we passed misty tea fields, planted in curved and bushy rows. It was my first time actually seeing a cultivated tea plant.
“Tea is a pretty plant,” I remarked out loud. He nodded yes.
We stopped at various lookout points to take pictures. On one side lay Kagoshima Bay in its metallic blue entirety—in the distance, the volcano Sakurajima with its heavenly ash cloud floating overhead. To the west, the open sea stretched towards China.
Shimotakehara pointed out the hazy silhouette of a distant peninsula—Bonotsu—where James Bond’s “You Only Live Twice” was filmed back in 1966. I nodded yes, having never seen or heard of the movie before.
At the end of the Satsuma peninsula we watched the sun set. From the rocky shores I looked up at the perfect volcano of Mt. Kaimon—a dark sloped triangle on a shining horizon. I thought of those kamikaze pilots leaving Kagoshima in their planes, how this one green mountain was their final view of Japan—their last memory of home.
We stopped one last time on our drive, this time so that Shimotakehara-san could take a phone call. He spoke for a good while in Japanese, with some exasperation. I stepped out of the car and walked along the road, watching one full white moon pop up between two sugarloaf mountains. Everything in Japan is so poised, I thought—even the moon.
I had come to Kagoshima for three days. I had done all the touristy things you’re supposed to do—I had seen the volcano, had bathed in the sand, had visited the Shimadzu palace and its cat shrine, and had toured far more museums than is healthy for any traveler.
But I had changed. Three days of travel in this far corner of Japan and I had become fascinated by pots, by tea and war and oranges and most of all, by history—a history that is still happening here and now.
My businessman host finished his call and clicked his phone shut, then apologized, shaking his head.
“Just now we are opening a Chinese restaurant here in Kagoshima. You know, we are beginning to get so many visitors from China.”