September 6, 2011
Sometime in the 1970s, a Japanese high school girl named Kikue approached an American tourist named Rod at the Toshogu Shrine, asking him if she could practice her English with him. Rod said yes, and so was born a friendship and correspondence that would last for decades. When Rod passed on, his daughter Nicki “inherited” Kikue, and they continued to write to one another and exchange gifts at holidays and birthdays.
Nicki, my mother’s college roommate, encouraged me to contact Kikue when I visited Japan, and I was immediately impressed by Kikue’s warmth and energy over email. Kikue invited me to stay with her family in Utsunomiya (宇都宮, literally, “heaven capital”, or “heaven shrine”), a city north of Tokyo. With a still valid JR “gajin” pass, I hopped on a Shinkansen after work one afternoon and headed toward Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県, “horse-chestnut tree”).
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Kikue and her husband, Mitsugu, greeted me at the train station. Together they run a motorcycle repair shop on the first floor of their home called “Mickey Cycles” (from the combined first syllables of their first names). The first thing they did was proudly show off their 1958 Rikuo, a Japanese motorcycle built by Harley-Davidson.
The shop was full of vintage and custom motorcycles and bicycles, tools, and 1950’s advertisements.
The whole family loved anything from 1950’s America, old rock music, classic US advertisements, the film October Sky. Excited to have a “astronomer” in their midst, they showed me their vintage books on rocket science.
Kikue and Mitsugu used to ballroom dance competitively, until Kikue hurt her shoulder a few years ago. Her closet was like visiting a Hollywood starlet’s dressing room, resplendent with sequins and sparkles and pearls.
Sunset in Utsunomiya was golden and glowing, really feeling like the capital of heaven.