Chikako Takada: Renaissance woman. Ryokan proprietor. Opera lover. Friend of many.
When I first met Chikako Takada, I was most impressed by her non-stop energy and enthusiasm towards life. At just over five feet tall, her round, sturdy frame belied the likelihood that she likely burned more calories each day than most people might in a week. She was constantly on the go.
She had inherited Taka-ya Ryokan (高家旅館 – a traditional Japanese-style inn) from her mother, now wrinkled with age, who often chatted with me in Japanese as we sipped green tea together. Although I found her Japanese a bit hard to follow, I could catch several elements of Chikako's life.
I learned that Chikako’s father had passed away several years prior from a liver disease. Never knew much about him, but it seemed as if Chikako, her mother, her brother, his wife and their daughter, Akane, had found a rhythm to their lives in this small, western Japan town.
Enter Me – The Gaijin. (外人) But I Was Not the First!
At the time I met her, Chikako must’ve been in her late 40’s or early 50’s, but I couldn’t tell from my vantage point as an 21 year-old college exchange student. Chikako had never married; I do not know why. But I could tell there had been romance in her heart once. She was intimate with classical music, and I could tell when she played her violin, and when she listened to it in the off hours, it took her to a different place, another world.
For me, a gaijin (外人 – foreigner) discovering Japan for the very first time, Takaya was a magic place of refuge. During my six-month stay in Yamaguchi-ken (山口県 – Yamaguchi Prefecture), I would live and work for four days in the industrial town of Ube (宇部) on the sea, and then take a 45-minute train ride inland to Yamaguchi City, the prefectural capital, on Friday, to make it to the ESS (English Speaking Society) meeting of Yamaguchi University college students in the evening.
As part of my program, we actually had a small, eight-tatami room rented for me to stay. It was in a type of guest house; many people lodged there. There were many elderly people who ran their televisions almost nonstop. I frequently found it difficult to fall asleep.
Whenever she had an opening, Chikako would offer me a free place to stay. By the end of my six-month stay, I think I had probably stayed in almost every room of the ryokan (旅館).
Indeed, Takaya Ryokan proved a place of magic for me. Slippers awaited me at the door. Traditional tatami (畳 – grass-woven) mats, low-level tables and zabuton (座布団 – cushions), and a singular kotatsu (コタツ – heated, covered table) for the cold months welcomed me every time. Japanese-styled koto music often playing, sometimes transported me to an earlier Japan. But then reality would strike. Most times chatty guests and kitchen clamor would drown out the songs of traditional Japan.
Upstairs, the ryokan boasted several guest rooms with futon and traditional bedding, including rice or buckwheat-filled makura (枕 –pillows), plus tokonoma (床の間) – a "negative space" concept sometimes jarring to Westerners (at least at that time), but a feature I found so fascinating. And, once in the guest room, I would don a yukata (浴衣 – traditional light robe), for relaxation within the guest house.
Downstairs we would go to the traditional Japanese ofuro (お風呂 – bath). In the steam of the Japanese-styled bath, where you clean first outside the tub and then enter the piping-hot shared bath water, I often found stillness and rest.
Family Challenges – And Opportunities
It was always such a treat to stay with Chikako. I felt as if I had been adopted into her family, in many respects. Although my Japanese was at times faltering, she and her other family members spurred me on to express myself even when I felt like my head was spinning!
Chikako’s niece, Akane, was a large child who struggled with her world, and with her words. Chikako tried to explain to me about Akane, but I never quite got it in either Japanese or English. Only later did I figure out that Akane was autistic. Having never been exposed to autism before, I didn’t realize the huge challenges the entire family faced in raising Akane.
Yet Akane taught the family many priceless things. Her simplicity, her ability to be in the moment – these are lessons that most people without such learning challenges don’t experience. She had four adults who shared her care, and that is so much more than many autistic children get.
Still, back in those days, the Japanese mostly hid their special-needs children, and their special-needs adults. As in many societies, the idea that a child is this way because of something wrong…or evil…that one of the parents did often prevails. There is shame. And, even today, there are limited programs that acknowledge the disability, seek to work with the special-needs individuals, and offer caregivers a reprieve.
Sharing a Love of Travel & Discovery
Chikako’s generous heart, her song-filled spirit, her love of art, photography, writing and travel made a deep impression on me. I remember her telling me one day about her travels in Mexico.
“You know, I wore my poncho and sombrero, and people kept on coming up to me speaking in Spanish. I guess us Asians don’t look so different from the Central and South Americans….”
We often laughed well into the night as we recounted our travel stories, mine so much more limited due to my mere 21 years at the time. She had been all over the world in her earlier years.
Welcoming Us – Again and Again
Chikako also hosted my in-laws, when they visited us while we lived in Japan several years later. With English as the only means of communication but a common generational connection, they proceeded for several years later to communicate a few times each year through the mail. I believe that Chikako added so much to Sam and Mary’s experience in Japan.
And at the end of our two-year stay in Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, teaching English and adjusting to life as a newlywed couple, we traveled throughout the whole of Japan by car. Again, we could spend some meaningful time with this dear soul. All the family members welcomed us, too; this was only a few years after my first stay.
Years later, when our family lived in China for a year, we also spent a stretch of time in Japan. And Chikako hosted our family of five for two nights. Sadly, no one but she and Akane remained. Her mother first, and then both brother and sister-in-law (Akane's parents) passed away. This meant the closure of Takaya (some years earlier) and a focus on caring for Akane, now well into her 30's but needing regular supervision. I could see life was tough.
But still, Chikako welcomed us with vigor! She was thrilled to meet our kids and get to know them. She had arranged for us to stay at a friend's ryokan down the way from her home. It, too, gave our children a good taste of traditional Japan.
Still Going Strong!
I hadn't hear from Chikako for some time even though I make sure to send her annual greetings. And then, just recently, came the email! All in Japanese (she explains how she understands English fine, but writing in it is too exhausting these days). I can relate, since I can understand Japanese well, but taking the time to write it (even type it) these days far removed is more effort. Still, the bond was strong.
"I'm still alive, I want you to know!" she wrote with triple exclamation points. Now 81, Chikako is in that sunset season. But our bond remains strong. It is a gift to have a part of your heart in another land – and for so long.
Do you have a similar experience to this – a relationship cultivated over decades, across cultures & languages, you can share? Write about it!