At Home In Japan : A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery by Rebecca Otowa (Tuttle Publishing)

At Home in Japan

As the subtitle states, this is one woman’s journey of discovery in which she learns what living in Japan is like.  In my opinion, most people who think of moving to Japan either consider the twenty-four hour metropolis of Tokyo or the kuidaore (eat until you drop) city of Osaka.  However, this is the story of how Otowa finds herself in a 350-year- old farm house in rural Kyoto where she has lived for the past 30 years.

Otowa, a California native whose family immigrated to Australia when she was in her teens, never thought she would live anywhere but Australia or the States.  Then she finds that she enjoys studying the Japanese language which leads her to major in Asian studies at a university in Kyoto. Here she meets her future husband, who once traveled alone to Australia and loved it.  Through a mutual acquaintance, he learns that a girl from Australia is studying in Kyoto and goes there to meet her. He and Otowa hit it off right away and they marry four years later.

Otowa says she didn't know what she was getting herself into.  For one thing, her fiancé is the chonan (eldest son) of a very traditional Japanese family. This means it is his responsibility to take care of his parents, their farm house and their land.

Otowa has to learn a lot of unwritten rules. As an American, she finds some of them quite annoying, such as the wife is the last one to use the bath.  Even her wedding is planned by her future in-laws who tell her that it would be rather difficult to have her parents participate, so she has a stand-in for her father at her own wedding.  Otowa says at that time she was still naïve and a little intimidated by the entire process--now she regrets not speaking her mind back then.

But Otowa grows to love Japan and traditional country life.  She feels she’s becoming more Japanese while the younger generation of Japanese are becoming more westernized.  Otowa shares with us her experiences of traditional Japanese life such as making omochi (rice pounded into a glutinous mass and served with the traditional New Year’s meal called osechi) Enjoyinghanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the spring and tsukimi (moon watching) in the fall.  Serving and drinking tea in a tradition called sado which roughly translates to “the way of tea”.  Taking part in, and explaining, the ritual of  a traditional Japanese funeral..  She shares with us both her happy and sad moments, along with certain nuances of living in Japan, as if she were talking to us as friends.

She describes her relationship with her family, friends, neighbors and the various deities that live in the old farmhouse. When she first saw her husband’s house, she admits she was taken aback.  The house was built sometime in the 1600s and expanded as the family has grown.  Showing some pictures of her husband’s family and home that were taken in the 1800s, she reveals that the house hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

As my own grandmother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house as well, I found that I could relate to Otowa’s descriptions of spending the winter under a kotatsu (small table with a heater underneath), stoking the fire for the bath, being afraid of falling in the toilet that was only a hole in the ground (or so I thought as a child), walking up the steep stairs to the second floor, playing “Perfection” (popular game back in my youth) with my cousins along a wooden corridor that looks out to a small garden.  Reading Otowa’s book reminds me of my childhood and makes me long to go visit my grandmother’s house once again.~by Ernie Hoyt