The Uchida family took me to a World Heritage Site outside of Utsunomiya, by the town of Nikko (日光, “sunshine” or “sunlight”). Toshogu is the most ornate shrine in Japan and also contains the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. We drove through the gorgeous Tochigi Prefecture, passing rice fields, orchards, and tall mountains to the north, reveling all the while in the dry clear air.
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”).
The first thing I noticed about Tochigi-ken was the relative lack of humidity: the prefecture was surprisingly dry and pleasant. Numerous strip malls, big box stores, and other features of suburban life sprawled along the straight roads, intermingling with rice paddies.
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.