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Reuniting Pen Pals In Japan

Valerie and Keiko, then and now. Left: May 1990 Right: Jan. 2015

My favorite part about getting to port in Japan was being reunited with a friend, Keiko and her husband Toshio Hirooka after 24.5 years. My uncle had befriended them after providing tennis lesson to their son when they first visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. By extension, my mother also became friends with them, and hosted Keiko and her cousin Johanna in our home in Penang in 1990.

Somehow or other, I became pen pals with Keiko and Johanna. My writing abilities and imagination were somewhat limited as a six year old, but I do have memories of receiving letters and lovely Japanese cards from Japan. We stayed in touched for a few years and then eventually, slowly lost touch.

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The Hirooka’s at the “Festival of the Light” in Osaka

However, when I found out we would be sailing to Japan, I tried to find my old friends on Facebook but had no luck. I didn’t have an email address, but thankfully my mother still had Keiko’s home address from years ago. I sent a letter, not really expecting a response but I did receive one, along with an invitation to stay at the Hirooka’s house in Nishinomiya. I found out the Hirooka’s live about 10 miles from Kobe, my second port stop while in Japan. Unfortunately, I was informed that Johanna was in the hospital, so I was unable to see her.

I found the Hirooka’s to be so impressive, especially for folks being in their late 70s and early 80s. They took me by train to Nara, Osaka and Kyoto and had so much energy and enthusiasm. Toshio (almost 84) would always be ahead of us, with so much physical strength and mental sharpness. I discovered that we shared a common bond: he had also sailed the Pacific! However, Toshio sailed in the 50s, on a freight ship, so nowhere near as luxurious as our MV Explorer. He sailed from Yokohama to Oregon, only then to take buses and trains to his final destination at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. I also learned that the Hirooka’s lived in San Francisco from 1965-68 for Toshio’s job, a place I called home for three years and will likely soon call home for the long term.

It was such a treat to see my old friends, after so many years and letters. It was an irreplaceable gift to have the opportunity to see some of Japan through their eyes. And of course, in typical Japanese elder fashion, they spoiled me and would not let me spend a Yen on anything while in their company.

I plan to keep up an electronic correspondence, that we now have going until the next time I’m back in Japan, or they in San Francisco.

  • Culture

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