The Little Woman with the Big Red Handbag

Looking back I should have known better. I was in the back seat heading to book club. The driver a lovely Japanese woman named Miho. I had heard of an island called Art Island. Jack and Greg were headed this way soon. This is how I remember Miho’s side of the conversation. “Yes I know this island. Yes it would make a great day trip”. I told her I was looking for a Japanese person to go with to make it smoother. Someone who would want to practice their English. You can’t imagine how much time is wasted trying to figure out things. But then we arrived and the energy of book club took over and I didn’t think about it again until I was passing hors d’oeuvres to the right. Miho says to, at that time, an unfamiliar member named Naoko. “Do you want to go to Naoshima with Angela?” “Sure!” she says and then immediately in Japanese I hear her say our version of, “oh shit what did I just agree to? I don’t speak good English, I should not do this!” Miho is intermittently saying in Japanese, “you will be fine, Angela understands enough Japanese, go, go, go”.

The following day the emails begin. Back and forth they go until we have a date and time. The sheer quantity and questions exposes the standard of Japanese hospitality. I realize I have started something that now has a life of its own. We try to go together to buy the bullet train tickets but our schedules prevent it. She is uncertain about this, but I assure her that between my husband and myself we can do it.

You know how Mary Poppins came in with the wind, carrying an umbrella? Well, my nanny stands on the bullet train platform with a bright red bag. She is not 5 feet tall. Whistles are screeching, warning bells clanging, people rushing around me, my sons in tow. I hastily approach an elegantly uniformed station employee to read my ticket when I see her! She is grinning through obvious anxiety, carrying an overstuffed bright red bag. She yells “get on! get on! get on!” We immediately step onto the train. Instantaneously the doors close behind me and the bullet train takes off. My heart is racing. Jack and Greg, stoned with jet lag, plop into their seats. There is giggling behind us. My friend Amy sits next to Naoko, and next to her is a woman I have not met before. Amy is grinning her Cheshire cat smile. She and I have had many conversations about trip preparations and I being the Nervous Nellie. Ironically it is me who almost misses the train today.


Introductions are made. Emiko is Naoko’s good friend. She has been invited because she speaks good English. It is more evidence to Naoko’s insecurity and attention to detail. Before I know it, we are off the train and standing in a station waiting for a regular train. It is at this time that I realize that I have not bought the right tickets. I also discover that my train card is missing. Panic runs a chill up my spine. Naoko, still wearing her bright shiny smile, says, “no worries, we will get ticket here.” Behind us is an antiquated ticket machine, no roman letters or English button. The train comes and off we go again. I cannot tell if we are going north, south, east or west. We are going forward. A young man sits in front of us. We learn he is from South Korea. He has bought himself a JR (Japan Railways) student pass. He gets on and off on a whim. The boys are sitting with Naoko and Emiko respectively and I hear their deep voices in the background. The view out the window has slightly changed. Tree covered hills. Again I am surprised how fast this leg of our journey ends.

Naoko periodically looks at a sheet of paper. More evidence of the time she has put in to planning this trip. Like Mary Poppins, she has us scurry to the ferry, which will take us to Naoshima-Art Island. I love riding on the ferries here. It is quiet and spacious. We sit on their couch like seats as if we are in a living room. Emiko pulls me aside. “Naoko has put much effort into your trip. She really is worried for you to have good time with your sons.” I hear Naoko laugh. [I think this is the first time for me to hear it. She is very quiet in book club.] The boys are using their whole bodies to tell a story. She is a small woman and her smile takes it all. What Emiko is trying to tell me seeps in.

As we come into the port, huge, brightly colored, polka dotted gourds come into view. A telltale sign that today is a special day. Naoko and Emiko huddle. It will become a familiar sight. We find the bus stop. The bus is not the big modern bus of Hiroshima. It’s a converted van that holds about 20 people sitting.   The bus driver waits as we all cram in the aisle. Greg can’t stand straight up, his head bent like a doll in too small of a space. The ratio of foreigner to Japanese is 1:1.   Another indication that we are somewhere unique.

The bus stops and we get off. More like expel. We are a noisy group. The road is amazingly narrow and we cling to the side of a building to let a car by that was behind the bus. Again the girls (my name for them now) huddle again around the paper. We walk down the street. Everywhere I look I want to stop and absorb. I can’t. We are on a schedule. We have lunch reservations and it has taken us half the day to get here.

Because of the atomic bomb, there are few buildings older than seventy years in Hiroshima. A reminder of the price Hiroshima continues to pay for war. Here the architecture shows the timeline of its inhabitants. My lack of architectural vocabulary is your loss also. Everywhere I look I see foreign, beautiful roofs, window shapes, doorways, gateways. Even everyday objects like fences, sheds, gardens feel special; Hobbit town like. We are a band of merry travelers. And we are starving.

After going down a few wrong paths and asking some road workers, we find our café. It is someone’s house. They have converted their front room into a dining room. The boys sit on the floor and the women choose the couches. I sink into the sofa and my surroundings sink into me. The view out the window is of this fishing village. A menagerie of gear, discarded household objects, and nature scatter the horizon. I see small signs of arts at work. We can hear and smell our lunch being made as we wait. The décor is more evidence of the innate stylish nature of the Japanese people. My boys stretch out their legs and fill the room. Quickly they fold them in as the server brings us our shibori (a hot towel to wipe your hands and face). Emiko and Naoko are speaking softly to each other in Japanese; more planning and reconfirming the plan. We eat yummy homemade curry rice. I am now feeling really stupid. How could I have not realized how much work would go into planning a trip like this?! I sneak off to the kitchen and inform the owner that I will be paying for lunch. Zenbu (all of it). When we leave and Naoko realizes this she fusses. I take her by the shoulders and say, “I’m American and this is what we do.” I can tell this is very uncomfortable for her but in this case it doesn’t matter.

In an effort to preserve the community of this island, homes are being converted into art museums and galleries. We walk to the community center and buy our ticket. We know we won’t get to all of them but Naoko has planned out the day and I am confident it’s the best way. I have gotten comfortable being the follower in Japan. When you are illiterate you have no choice but to depend on the kindness of the natives.

Traditional Japanese homes are very different than western homes. Their hallways are on the outside of the structure. Emiko points to a bowed beam by the entrance. She explains that in the olden days it was very important to find a beautiful beam that was not straight to put in this place. We have to take our shoes off. There are warning signs to not fall into the pool. The room is dark and in the center is a pool that takes up most of the floor. In the pool are timers in sets of three. Each timer is going through the numbers 1-9. We gingerly walk around the edge to find a seat. I am afraid a Housley is going to fall in the pool. The edge is not very wide and it is pitch dark. No one is talking. We sit and look at the timers. I can feel Naoko’s happy, urgent energy. The day has quickly moved into afternoon and we have so much to still see. We leave and walk down another street. It’s like stepping back in time. We pass locals sitting in their doorstep watching us. An elderly woman is singing a traditional tune. The gardens are beautiful. There is no pretense of perfection. Weeds, tools, containers exist along with the vegetables and flowers. I can’t get over how different everything looks. I didn’t realize how modern Hiroshima is.

We are a big group walking down the street, like a six-person parade. It gives you a chance to really look at the person in front of you. We are merry, everyone chatting easily with whomever they are near. No one clings to another. I notice that Naoko wears something on her back. It is then she tells me that ten years ago she broke her back. She smiles and giggles as she tells the story. There is no ‘woe us me’ stuff.

The most profound experience of the day happened in the dark. Before you are escorted in the guide tells you exactly what is going to happen because it is pitch dark. Once you go down a hall and around, you cannot see the hand in front of you. You sit down against a wall and the bench meets you. You slide down the bench to make room for everyone. And then you sit. In the dark. In complete silence. After a while your eyes adjust and you start to see things. You even get to stand up and walk to the other side of the room. It is a museum to show you the wonder of your optical nerve.

We see a couple of homes full of traditional Japanese art. Then we catch the bus and are headed to a large art museum. We must catch the ferry soon. Naoko says we only have 20 minutes. As we get off, she stops and talks to the bus driver. My Japanese is not that good but in any language you can understand “No way lady!” We get off. Emiko and Naoko step away from the group and out of the corner of my eye I see her take out this thick small book. It reminds me of the telephone books back home.

They rejoin us. It is the bullet train schedule that she is looking at. She is recalculating our timeline. Yes, we only have exactly 35 minutes, but we will still make the last ferry off the island if we hurry. So the six of us scurry up the elaborately landscaped path and into the museum. It is made of concrete. It is the most unusual building I have ever been in. Because of my study of mathematics, my brain is going crazy. Unusual geometrical shapes are everywhere. The use of light, gravel, grass, and space transform concrete into art. It is indescribable. With the urgency of time breathing down our necks we walk through this magical place.

We end up on the beach. As Amy and the boys take pictures of the Seto sea I look back and see the familiar huddle. They have two thick books between them. It dawns on me that Naoko does not have a smart phone. Until this moment I didn’t get what the “smart” was. As we walk through the gift shop, my son, Jack needs two minutes to buy a book and a t-shirt. Naoko and Emiko have worried faces but I reassure them with our legs we can easily catch up. I wait while Jack does his shopping. My heart is pounding. Why is it when you are in a hurry everyone seems to be moving in slow motion? The cashier is a young woman. She and Jack are smiling and he is trying to do this purchase on his own. As he goes he realizes she has not rung up the t-shirt. The cashier now is flustered because she knew we were in a hurry. By the time we get out of there we are running down the path to catch up.

On the way to the ferry we pass lines and lines of people waiting for the bus. I feel bad for them because our bus is already packed. The American in me kvetches. And sees money making opportunity. The landscapes are breathing with the sea as their background. There are beaches and friendly people. It feels like paradise. I wonder if all of those waiting will get off the island. A familiar shiver of anxiety zips through my body.

At the ferry the boys get an ice cream. It is then that I pick up Naoko’s bag. It is so heavy! It must weigh 30 pounds, which would be a third of her weight maybe more. “What is in this thing!”? Well, she says, bottles of tea for your sons if they get thirsty, chocolates if they need energy. The shinkansen(bullet train) schedule, the JR schedule and the ferry schedule. These are all books. And then the normal stuff that women have in their purse! I try to carry it for her but she won’t let me.

The ferry arrives and we climb aboard. We are tired, but a good tired. We sit in the exact place we came. I have brought a gift of homemade knitted slippers and hand cream for our two guides. “You really are Japanese!” Naoko says with a surprised and grateful look. The boys begin to tell her all about their grandma who made the slippers. Emiko takes this opportunity to get my attention.

“This has been a wonderful day! Your sons are so gentle and interested in what we have to say. I would like to invite your family to hear my survivor story on the A-Bomb Memorial Anniversary in August. I know Jack can’t make it, but do you think your other sons would like to be a part of a lantern project with the YMCA?” We exchange contact information.

We women talk about what awaits us at home. I will make supper. We talk about the duty of cooking for a family and the transitions that happen as it grows and shrinks. We talk about Japanese food and their experiences with introducing it to foreigners.

Our group lazily moves from ferry to train. It is on the train that the energy shifts. There is much huddling and talking. Naoko informs us that we have seven minutes to get to the bullet train from the station. Like dominoes the information is passed on. She tells me to stick close to her. I tell the same to Jack and Greg. It is rush hour. The station will be packed. Stick close.

Sure enough when we get off it is an ocean of black suits. Naoko and Emiko take off in it like sea otters. I keep my eye on that big red bag. Every now and again I look back to see my sons wading through the people. We come to the turnstile. The natives move through with ease. Stomach churning I put my tickets in. X!!! I now find out I have to put all my tickets together when we pass through. You have two bullet train tickets, one to get you on, and one for your seat. Then you have the regular train ticket and they all must go through. It takes each Housley twice before the gate will let us out. We race up the stairs to the platform. Apologetic smiles greet us. As we catch our breath, Naoko informs us that she was wrong and we now have 7 minutes before the bullet train arrives.


Greg asks about the food stands on the platform. Naoko helps him find a bento (Japanese lunch box) for the ride home. The train blazes in. Unlike this morning, we casually enter the train. The seats are three across. Naoko bends over and before I know it swings the seats around. So now the six of us can face each other. Greg plops himself down between Naoko and Emiko. Emiko starts telling us a funny story about how she would say “bride and broom” instead of bride and groom. Meanwhile Greg uncovers his bento, separates his ohashi (chopshicks) and proceeds to devour the bento. There are nine sections of food.   Assorted fermented, fresh and cooked vegetables and fish beautifully presented fill the spaces. He eats rhymically and unceasing. As he puts the traditional plastic grass in the middle space and replaces the ohashi in the paper sleeve, I notice Naoko staring at him. I am worried that he was doing something rude but can’t think how that could be. When he looks up, Naoko leans over and says to Emiko in very animated Japanese “oh my goodness did you see this boy eat! He ate with such gusto! I feel so much joy from watching him eat I feel I made this bento myself!” Ok, those were not the exact words but that is the gist. Naoko has this special way of talking and laughing at the same time. It is joyful, innocent, and sincere. She smiles so wide she hides it with her hand. (This is a Japanese custom for women to cover their mouth when speaking.) And it peaks through both sides. She says to me in English. “No wonder you like to cook for your sons.” Later Greg confesses that there was a big bone in one of the pieces of fish but realized how public he was so just ate it out of desperation.

We arrive at Hiroshima station around seven o’clock. Emiko and Naoko confess they are headed to a bar. I wish I could be a Japanese-speaking fly on the wall. The boys and I walk home, thankful it is at a relaxed pace.

I would later learn that Naoshima is rarely done in a day. Three or four is the recommendation. Ignorance is truly bliss.


Jack’s pile of souvenirs




5 thoughts on “The Little Woman with the Big Red Handbag

  1. Ang, What a joy it is to read your stories! I felt I was in every scene–In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve caught my breath from rushing to get through the train station at rush hour. Thank you.


  2. You fill the cavities of my thoughts Angela, of, how we need one another, that ‘no man is an Island’ in transversing the likes of language and culture, schedules and throngs.
    Appreciate those great photo posts as well.


  3. Thank you, thank you, dear friend. You have provided another wonderful virtual adventure…for all us armchair travelers!
    What a gentle, beautiful, observant story.


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