Tokyo, Free Tickets, and a Tombstone

My friend, Wendy, just sent an announcement about a book she has written called “Lucky to be Alive: A Love Story”. I haven’t yet read the book but I am sure it’s heartwarming because everything Wendy has ever done is heartwarming.

A column in Orcas Issues says her book is based on the story of Lucky, a Border Collie who roamed free in the San Juan Valley for ten years before adopting Wendy’s family as his pack.

A dog in love with life, no matter the setbacks, moved Wendy to compare his response to the response of humans to hardships and change. She feels the human species seems to have lost its will to live as evidenced by air, land and water pollution, all necessary to the survival of humankind. Through writing Lucky’s story, Wendy hoped to discover what it was that kept Lucky alive for 18 ½ years…and why human beings were less in love with life than her happy Border Collie.

My friend has been writing steadily since she left her VP’s job at the California Institute for the Arts more than two decades ago. On a weekend visit to her family home in New England in the 80s, she discovered a valuable cache of hand-written letters her great-great Uncle and Aunt had written when her Aunt was a young missionary living in China and her Uncle was a merchant seaman. After reading the treasure trove of love letters she’d uncovered in the family attic, she almost instantly resigned as the Institute’s star fundraiser and began haunting libraries around the world in search of more material about her ancestors.

Over the years, she traced various members of her family to villages in China, to universities in China, the United States and Japan and to auction houses in London. However, John Happer, a member of her family who briefly surfaced in letters written in the late 1800s, remained elusive. Ultimately she tracked him from China to the United States to Japan before his trail went cold.

Cut ahead to a fancy banquet at the Biltmore Hotel organized by a Los Angeles Asian women’s association in honor of Women Warriors. Naturally, since we each had close ties to various Asian ass-kicking women’s groups in Southern California, we each ponied up for dinner tickets and in between the chicken smothered in some unrecognizable sauce and the chocolate mousse, Wendy won two All Nippon Airways tickets to Tokyo.

Six months later, armed with old news articles about her uncle’s art collection and a photograph of his headstone, Wendy and I headed to the Land of the Rising Sun in search of her great uncle’s grave. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with the Emperor’s birthday which meant that the Prime Minister of Australia, the King of Tonga, and half the crowned heads of Europe were in town to celebrate the Big Day. Besides the obvious overflow in all public sites, hotels and private residences, this was relevant because I was trying to get a meeting with the former Consul General in Los Angeles.
Then the official Spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Honorable Taizo Watanabe was busier than a snake at a plumber’s convention. Whenever I called, I was assured by his aide de camp, Mr. Hata, another former acquaintance and occasional project partner at the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles, that Taizo Watanabe wanted very much to see me but that he was tied up in meetings with the President of France. When I called the next day, Mr. Hata explained that the Ambassador to Mars was calling to bring over a few pounds of Mars Bars for the Emperor and could not fit me in that afternoon. Finally, after Wendy and I had spent several few days of fruitless grave hopping, Mr. Hata called to say Watanabe-san could fit me in at 4 p.m. between the entourage of Tongan royalty and the Keeper of the Privy Seal from London.

As it turned out, we had a surprisingly long and lovely visit with the elegant, jazz-loving Ministry Spokesman, extended largely because we told him about Wendy’s search for her uncle’s gravesite. He found her search very intriguing and had his staff conduct a thorough, on-the-spot research project on our behalf.

In less than an hour, we learned that John Happer, a businessman/art collector /and professor at Waseda University, was an ardent admirer of Hiroshige and the first Western art collector to introduce Hiroshige to European collectors through Sotheby’s in London. In a memorial message written by The Reverend K. Otobe , we discovered that John Stewart Happer had arrived in Japan in 1891 and almost immediately developed an interest in and passion for Nishiki-e (Japanese prints).

According to Reverend Otobe, “he began to take a special interest in the works of Hiroshige, and established a new theory about Hiroshige II, proving that there Was another Hiroshig’, known as Shigenobu, a pupil of the famous Hiroshige. This theory was accepted by the British Museum.

His study and fondness for the work of Hiroshige were such that he came to be called “Hiroshige-Happer.” After his death it was learned that in writing to a friend, also interested in Hiroshige, he chose the following as his own epitaph – “Here lies one who loved Hiroshige.”

When he died in 1936, his Japanese and foreign friends, wishing that his name would be forever linked to that of Hiroshige, erected a tablet of commemoration in the same temple grounds where Hiroshige was buried close to his tomb. When the Americans began bombing Tokyo, both Hiroshige’s and Happer’s tombs and commemorative tablets were moved to a safer location outside of Tokyo.”

45 years later, Wendy and I stood weeping happily in a garden where both grave markers had been lovingly preserved, cared for by the son of the same Reverend Otobe who had presided over the memorial ceremony for John Happer. Reverend Otobe the Younger was at a Rotary Club meeting when we arrived at the temple but within minutes after we entered the temple garden, his wife appeared, saying “You’re early, you’re early!”

I thought the passage of 45 years might be interpreted as just slightly tardy but apparently Taizo Watanabe’s staff had called ahead to let Reverend and Mrs. Otobe know we’d be arriving a few hours later.

While we waited for the good Reverend to return from his Rotarian duties, his wife brought Wendy a box of letters written by Hiroshige Happer’s widow between 1936 – 39, before she returned to the States. Mrs. Otobe also brought us tea and wonderful cakes and upon her husband’s return, the couple presented each of us with a Hiroshige woodblock print.

After Reverend Otobe conducted a special ceremony in the temple, he told Wendy “Your uncle was waiting for you.” A reporter then miraculously appeared to record the occasion and following that, the good Mr. Hata arrived with a driver and a car to accompany us on the long, slow Friday afternoon drive back into Tokyo.

“Ruvvry story, ruvvry story” everyone said to us as we departed and indeed, it was the loveliest of lovely stories. I was fortunate to be a tagalong.

In 2006, Wendy later wrote about our small adventure in her “First Will and Testament” to her family. I am also including the Farewell Ode written in honor of Hiroshige Happer by Reverend Otobe (the Father) in 1937 in this blog.


Dropping my brush at Azuma (Eastern capital),
I go the long journey to
the Western Country (Buddhist heaven)
To view the wonderful sceneries there.

This is Hiroshige’s farewell ode, but Japan is the Western country for the late Happer of America. When he came to Japan and saw Hiroshige’s art, he was astonished and delighted in his inmost heart, and indulged in the study of Hiroshige, finally making Hiroshige famous throughout the world. Last year, he ended his life of seventy-four years.

It is not difficult to imagine that Hiroshige met his foreign friend unexpectedly eighty years after his death and talked about the famous places of the Western Country to the great soul who worshipped him always, and under the earth they have shaken hands with deep emotion. Though they comprehended the souls of each other, Happer did not expect that his tomb would be built beside Hiroshige’s monument. But accidentally, it happened so, nay, it is connected thus necessarily. Surely, he shall smile a pleasant smile. In this way, the friendly relation between Japan and America will be shown. It will soon become the famous place of this city because of the historic remains uniting the names of Hiroshige and Happer. As I was an old acquaintance, I open the mental eyes of his monument. By the way, here is a sentence – Listen!

Though this monument is poor,
Our minds are full of friendship;
Therefore this narrow place is
Paradise and glitters eternally.
Holy Words of the Rev. K. Otobe,
Superior of the Togaku Temple
Tokyo, May 30, 1937

Inscription on Hiroshige-Happer Monument
Togaku Temple, outside of Tokyo, Japan


The following excerpt is from the letter Wendy wrote (with far more eloquence and delicacy than I have) to her family describing our trip to Tokyo in 1989.

“The day before I was to leave for Japan, as I might have told you, I became ill with a fever and stomach pains. I called a dear friend with whom I was to travel and warned her that I might not be able to go, but we would talk early in the morning in case it was a 24-hour flu.

The very thought of not going was almost inconceivable to me. A member of my new-found Hawai’i family, now passed on, had given me a photograph of John Happer’s tombstone in Tokyo and I had wanted to include it on my grave-hopping journey; I felt I’d never be able to get there, however, for money was becoming short. Then my friend and I were at an Asian-Pacific women’s dinner and I won two airline tickets to Tokyo. My friend, who had worked with the Japan-American cultural center in Los Angeles, managed to obtain hotel reservations at a huge discount. We were all set for what was to be a grand lark; everything fell into place, as if it were meant to be.

Even my body cooperated enough to get me on the plane. I had promised my body, which had been through so much, that I would give up the trip if the fever persisted. Possibly it was my willingness to honor my body’s health above anything else that chased the fever away; healing is a great mystery, but might not kindness lie at its heart? It is possible.

Throughout the five days in Japan, however, I was very ill. I moved past it, apologizing to my friend for how little I was able to do. But she was kind, and perhaps the kindness of another does as much to heal as one’s own. We went to small noodle shops to eat, which were very inexpensive. One sign of my illness was an enormous appetite; I had to eat every two or three hours, much like what happened three months later while recuperating from the ruptured appendix.

My friend made calls to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, and when we visited, telling them that the cemetery we thought it was, was not, they were kind, too, and found not only the cemetery but the directions by subway. Off we went. One day to travel, one to rest and go to the wrong cemetery, one day with the Foreign Ministry officials – we were left with two days to find the tomb.

On March 14, 1989, on my return from Japan, I wrote in my journal of the magic – what today I think of as the magic that happens when kindness rules the world:

To watch the Grand Plan unfold – all the calls [my friend] made on her own, and I made on my own, and there they were, coming together in one extraordinary day as we found dear John Happer’s grave, were welcomed into the home of the Japanese Zen Buddhist priest who watches over his grave, had a private Buddhist ceremony for his sweet soul, found all those photos and letters in the priest’s home, had the Asahi newspaper reporter there as an interpreter and photographer, being fed Japanese food first, then Western cakes by the priest’s wife, finding that John was buried beside Hiroshige, the artist whose works he adored and collected, given a ride back to the city so that we did not have to face the subway again, being taken to that wonderful Japanese-style restaurant….”

Back at the hotel after the dinner with the Foreign Ministry official, both my friend and I were overwhelmed by the magic of it all. That the Buddhist priest was the son of the priest that had conducted John Happer’s memorial service in 1937 also astounded me. As I write, his father’s words, “under the earth they have shaken hands with deep emotion,” illuminate my meeting with his son, all of us joining hands with no boundaries of time or space.

You will find all the papers from the temple among Uncle John’s papers. You will find the log of the trip – written over two months later, just before my appendix finally gave up – in my journals. (Yes, I won’t burn them!) You will find more about John as a young man among the letters of his father, Rev. Andrew Happer, and among the letters that Bliss wrote to him from 1886 to 1889, after Lillie’s death.

It is odd to me that I have written more about John Happer and the five-day Japan trip than I have written about my five trips to China…you will find out about those in my journals and articles, it is true, but still, I wonder. Has Uncle John, who combined business and a love of art and writing, influenced me above all other past family? I share Lillie’s concern for women and health care and education and spirituality. I share Bliss’s spiritual views, the Unitarian Universalist essentially embracing all religions, and his love of Chinese artifacts and flowering bushes that, along with tea, made up much of the China trade. And I share his desire, embedded in his spiritual tradition, that equality worldwide be expressed in fair trade. But Uncle John…all my life I have tended business and art, and the business of art – fundraising, administrative work, performing arts production, acting, singing, writing. Uncle John’s early life was so varied – medical care for Chinese in New York City, then a Chinese newspaper there. He ended up in Japan with a trading company, and then with Standard Oil, I believe, I’m not sure. But ever and always, Japanese art. And here I am, about to take watercolor classes and practice Zenga minimalist Zen Buddhist drawing.

In this writing place, unlimited by boundaries of space and time, the “pieces of me” float by and I visit with one at a time. On the flight to Japan, for example, I read a book, “On Top of the World,” a gift from my friend; in it is a woman’s account of a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, strange to her but powerful as she became lost in their chanting. Three days later I was experiencing my first Buddhist ceremony as the priest chanted to benefit John Stewart Happer.

This is the process of life that I have grown to trust, each step, each piece, taking us where we need to be at any given moment. The steps, like Time, are not linear, but simultaneous in the all-embracing Now.

With that trust, that faith, I need not be frantic, impatient, impolite. Everything has its appropriate place in time and space, in easy reach as the process of life dictates.

So enjoy your moments, dear ones. As the oldtimer here used to say, “Always be kind.” And “RESPECT. RESPECT. RESPECT.” Then you will find the magic.”

* * * * * * *

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