Backstories is a multi-sited storytelling festival located in backyards across Perth and regional Western Australia. In 2021, Backstories featured locations in Margaret River, South Fremantle, Midland, Quinns Rocks and more.
Backstories 2021 was made possible with funding from Lotterywest, Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries and the Centre for Stories Founders Circle.
This story was collected at our Hamersley backyard. It features Prunella Riddle. Just before the pandemic hit, Prunella took a trip around Japan with her son. She realised that just as he was changing, so was she.
Copyright © 2021 Prunella Riddle.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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I just wanted to start my story with a sharing of prose I wrote in 2019. And it’s called “the Bridge”. Sounds like this. On a whim, just to surprise you, I climbed up the rope pyramid. The coarse, worn rope in my hands, the sun in my eyes, I strained as I finally reached precariously higher and stood at the top. I felt mischievous and bold. Why? Just to make you smile!
That surprised awkward wave as you looked up and saw me somewhere out of the ordinary. But when I looked down at you, smaller by perspective, you were not looking my way. I waved anyway. Several times. And I willed you to turn and see me. But there you were, lost in your own world, happily playing.
I felt joy and sadness at the same time. So I paused. I looked out across weather-beaten rooftops, down quaint rail tracks, across forests, looking back on my life and waited. And waited for your face to turn. For your eyes to meet mine. To search for me as you once did. But I then realised that it was not me you were looking for.
No longer was I the centre of your games, your life, your thoughts, your heart. I remembered then how I’d spoken and not been heard. How I’d cried and had gone unnoticed. That time spent with me was no longer that magical sparkle it’d once been. How you looked through me once again. So, beaten, I climbed down.
The sun was still shining. The children still laughed. Later, I would tell you this story, leaving out the meaning, and you would say, ‘I’m sorry mum,’ not understanding that everything had changed. And yet nothing had changed. You were growing up, my son, but your mum will watch over you with love always.
So it was, we entered 2020 with a plan for travel. Our family are great travellers and we’d started a tradition where, when each of our sons turn thirteen, they could personalise a trip of their own choosing, including choosing the destination. 2020 was the year my son Reuben turned 13 and he chose Japan.
It was a logical choice for him because when he was young he liked Pokemon and Japanese manga and a lot of the Japanese culture. And when he hit high school, he decided to study the Japanese language. So it was a great choice, because neither I or him had ever been to Japan, and it was going to be just the two of us.
So we started planning. We bought AirAsia tickets, we bought a Japanese rail pass, and we started to organise accommodation. We are part of this hospitality club that’s global called CouchSurfing. And what CouchSurfing is, it’s sort of breaking down barriers by creating friendships across the world with no money involved.
So basically, we booked a series of accommodations across Japan, staying with local families and local people. So besides one night staying in a capsule hotel, and one night staying in a traditional wooden machiya in Kyoto, the rest of the time we were just staying with local people.
So it was, yesterday, one year ago, we were standing in front of the Sensoji temple on our first morning in Tokyo. It is the oldest and most traditional of all the temples in Tokyo. We were standing under the Red Thunder Gate, which was originally built in 941AD, and in its middle hung a huge paper lantern. Red, black and gold and as big as a minibus.
On four sides of us, there stood Shinto statues that were bigger than houses. I watched as Reuben walked through, and he placed in a small donation. He picked up a small wooden box. In this wooden box there were some sticks and at the base of the box was a small hole. He shook the box and out dropped a stick, which had a Japanese number on it.
He took that number and he opened a corresponding drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. And this is a tradition in Japan called omikuji and it is kind of like storytelling. Basically, it’s a prediction of whether your hopes will come true. Usually happens; most people in Japan always do it at New Years’.
Anyway, I’m sad to say I watched Reuben’s face drop because the fortune he got was a bad one. It was a bit ominous because we know of what comes next. The Japanese, being very wise, have a way of dealing with all this. What they do is they—you roll up the piece of paper into a small, long strip, and you tie it by the temple.
And in that way, if you have a bad fortune, you can secure it to the temple and you can leave it behind you. So that’s exactly what we did. And we set off on this trip. It was a whirlwind trip, I think in the end we covered about over 5000 kilometres by rail.
Some of the highlights include the few days at the beginning and end in the madness of Tokyo, we spent two days in a campervan that was arranged by a CouchSurfing host, we went up into the mountains and saw some snow—we remember the majesty of the snow-capped Mount Fuji through the window [of] the shinkansen as sped along to Nagoya.
We saw magnificent castles like the famous Himeji Castle and Japanese gardens of course. We also explored a lot of the history. We walked some of the trails following in the footsteps of the Edo period Shogun and, of course, revisited the horrors of Hiroshima. During this trip, which was absolutely amazing, I saw changes in Reuben.
I really like this quote by Gail Levine, who’s an American youth writer, and she says that “teen age is like a bridge. In front of you lies adulthood, and you’ve just come from childhood. The bridge is made of wood and as you walk across it, it burns.” And I saw this in Reuben. Like, I saw him start feeling shy and unconfident.
And as his confidence grew, he started helping me to read Japanese menus, listening to announcements made on the train and understanding some of it, starting to talk to local people and form relationships. And I was so proud of him, but at the same time, I felt that pain because I knew he was leaving behind that childhood innocence that he’ll never be able to return to.
Another thing that changed was, obviously, a growing pandemic was happening. When we left there’d been inklings of it; we started to see more masks on people. I remember a time we visited a host and he took us to meet his mum. And we were standing in the garden and the paper screen wound back and there she was like a light in the darkness.
And she bowed down to us and we bowed, but, you know, she was a distance away and they weren’t letting us get any closer. The real difference in Japan, compared to some of the chaos I saw on television at that time—with the panic buying and everything that was going on here—is they have a real sense of community.
Their elderly comes first, and then their community, and then their families and themselves. So it was really peaceful, and although I had lots of messages from home saying, ‘you really should come back now.’ You know? Japan was just so peaceful it’s hard to describe. There were things that were closed but it was really peaceful there.
So we left it until our planned departure on the 18th of March; went down to Haneda Airport to get on the plane and they said there’s going to be a two hour delay. Fair enough AirAsia. So we waited, and then unfortunately there was another announcement saying unfortunately the Malaysian border had closed that morning and so the flight would not depart.
So after further inquiry, they said, ‘what we’re going to do is we’ll get you guys and all the other people, tomorrow, all on one plane in the morning, and we’ll get you out.’ And I said, ‘is there going to be any problem transiting Malaysia?’ And they said, ‘no. It’ll be fine.’ So fair enough. We put our luggage in the—it needed lockers—and we booked some accommodation.
And as it worked out, it was across the other side of town, and it was only about a 30 minutes walk from where we’d started at Sensoji temple. So we got up in the morning, looked around, but then we got a text message and it said, ‘your flight is cancelled. Your morning flight is cancelled.’
So it was really starting to grow on us that there was a bit of panic there. After many discussions, especially with my husband Graham, you know, who was, sort of, pretty much, ‘you’ve got to get on a flight! It has to be directly to Australia! You can’t take a cheaper flight! You’ve just got to get home!’ You know? The Australian government have issued a warning that Australians should start coming home.
So he said, ‘I found a flight that goes to Peth via Melbourne and I booked it for you. You guys have got to get on it.’ So then we were faced with this dilemma. We were on one side of Tokyo, and Haneda was on the other side of Tokyo, and Narita now, where our plane was about to leave, was again across Tokyo and on the outskirts in another direction.
So it then became a harrowing trip, going through the labyrinth of Tokyo and all the trains in a spaghetti-like maze, trying to get to our flight. And that’s when I really saw Reuben, you know, step up, and all the skills that he learnt on the trip really came to the fore. You know, he was telling us which platform to be on and in between, while we were waiting for trains, he’d be clicking selfies in front of Tokyo 2020 Olympics posters.
And the good thing is that, you know, we made the flight. And we arrived home a day later than we expected and one day before the Australian borders closed. Phew. In the knick of time. So that’s the story of our journey, but I wouldn’t be able to finish this story without going back to the fortune that Reuben read, and telling you what it said.
It said, ‘your request will not be granted. Whatever you lost will not be found. And it’s a bad idea to start a trip.’ But here we are, we’d hurdled through Japan in the pandemic. We’d grown as individuals, and most importantly, we’d grown together.
Thank you for listening to my story.