You used to be able to drive up to the peak of a volcano. Japan is full of volcanoes. Fuji sits silent, in fact the great boiling valley gives you a near perfect view of it, but Owakudani is less sedate. Whilst the powers that be still allowed people to drive up to the peak, you could travel past signs that warned you that sometimes Owakudani san might throw rocks out of its caldera and to beware of his temperamental attitude. Tourists were allowed to get close enough to smell the sulphur and boil eggs in the bubbling pools at the caldera, close enough to feel that what you were doing was possibly not the most intelligent thing known to man, whilst feeling somewhat secure in the knowledge that surely if it was about to blow no tourists would be allowed up there. No tourists are allowed up there any longer, thus confirming my suspicion that it was not quite as safe as it was promoted as being. I believe from time to time it is allowed to open, but I may be wrong. I’m not concerned with the present, I live in the past.
You take the freeway out of Tokyo, out to Hakone. We used to wait, the three of us, with a pile of car seats and reusable shopping bags, wait for Mr. Charming to return with the car. Of course, parking is ridiculously expensive, so the car had to be collected from a far away monthly space, that Charming used to ride his bicycle over to collect, or in the days we hired a car for the weekend, collected from the car hire pick up spot. These days would mean enough food. Charming had a good job, one that provided amply for the family, but I was never given access to the money. I was never given a bank card, never given a checkbook, nor a credit card. The only funds I had access to was the cash he would leave on the breakfast bar. As I said, I was not allowed to work. Sometimes he didn’t leave anything. Sometimes he didn’t leave enough. It was never really enough. I had to buy him the best food and large amounts of it. He demanded steaks, mappodofu, chicken with bitter melons, side dishes of sesame scented spinach, kinpira, edamame and tofu with ginger and soy. He demanded snacks and sweets, and treats, and shogayaki that would take me hours of time, fill the house with delicious smells and yet me and the children would never get to taste it. I would toss rice in the smear of sauce left in the pan, and feed it to the children, like a mother hen putting food into chick’s mouths. Mr. Charming demanded the best koshihikari rice, which would cost 3500 yen a bag, minimum. The amount he left me would not cover a bag of rice plus any food for me and the children. In the days I had to buy diapers, I’d often collapse in tears because there would be no way on earth I could buy diapers, baby wipes, formula and rice all in the same day. All this while he earnt a fantastic wage. No, these things would cost me “being nice”. Being nice consisted of marital rape and abuse. It should not be me ashamed of this, but it is. Looking back it makes me burn with an anger that shames me further. To not want him to touch me, to be desperate for him to not touch me, to feel scared and revolted and nauseated at the thought, but to know you will not get the diapers and formula you need if you do not capitulate and play enthusiastic, to have your performance rated like a prostitute, to have no recourse to the law, to be trapped in the situation by the Hague Convention, is to truly know the state of women’s rights in the so called modern world. They simply do not exist in any meaningful way for so many women. I count myself, in some bizarre way, blessed with the experience which woke me up from my white, privileged, educated slumber, which threw me out from polite society, from any safety net, from the fuzzy confines of the way life should have gone. However, make no mistake, I’m angry. I’m angry at the pampered princesses who get to be coddled and protected, I’m angry at their seemingly charmed lives. I’m angry that the rights of women who have been not dealt such easy hands are reduced to being talked about, discussed, but held at arms length, excluded as problems not embraced as a vital, valuable part of the solution.
Me and the children lived on pots of lentils, cheap vegetables, and cheaper rice. Food was often sparse. I went without sometimes for days and days on end. Three meals a day was a pipe dream for me. I fed the kids first, and if there was anything left, I came later, much much later. My daily work was survival. I had two pairs of panties, two pairs of socks, and two outfits. My shoes were often mouldy and falling apart. The children had few clothes, and shoes were a constant source of horror for me. I simply could not afford to put shoes on growing feet, and shoes they cost a lot of “being nice”.
So when Charming insisted on these family days out, which would often end in him driving like a demon, or storming off and stranding us for no apparent reason, he would at least insist on eating out, his favorite hobby. That meant I would get a meal. More often than not, not things I would choose, but at least a solid meal for me and the children.
This particular day he had decided he wanted to go visit a particular wild mushroom ramen shop in Hakone. Hakone is forested, pretty and has much cooler air than the urban heat sink that is Tokyo. As I stood there with the children waiting for him to honk the horn, seeing their faces not quite decide whether to be wary and scared, or happy to be going somewhere else, I felt mixed emotions. Looking back, the sheer joy of holding both my children’s hands, the hugs and the kisses, far outweighs, even blurs the fear I felt at the time. I loved them overwhelmingly. That love can ever blur the fear, and the resentment and the pain.
There is nothing quite as eerie in this world as a bamboo forest. Aokigahara, the suicide forest, is immense, and to get to Owakudani you have to drive past its exterior perimeter, knowing what horrors are within. You see plastic ribbons fluttering from the roadside, where people have tied the streamers onto a bamboo tree, and pushed through the dense forest, to either come to their senses and retreat, retracing their steps back into the world, or else to depart from this realm into the next. Part of me was drawn to stare and look and search the dark, dense forest for signs of human, life or otherwise, the better part of me decided to look away. I sometimes wondered whether my life was one worth living. I wont pretend that the children always seemed like enough to keep on suffering and living with seemingly no escape possible, for years on end. But to be confronted with the desperate creepy reality of others decisions left me with an uneasy feeling. I knew at that moment, I wanted, I needed things to be different, I didn’t actually want to die. And, besides, I really did not want let him win.
This forest empties out into the little village at the bottom of Owakudani-san, you drive past tiny onsen with the steam rising from pools of volcanically heated mineral water, tofu-ya with shiny faced men dipping ladles into vats of creamy tofu. Roasted sweet potato sellers with their characteristic sing song advertisements, the bells of shrines and a few fat street cats trying to hustle elderly women out of treats or a place to sleep under the kotatsu. You climb higher and higher, hotels and houses are perched precariously in cut out areas of the mountainside, rickety beams holding up their balconies and wooden pagoda style rooves. One jolt and you would think the lollypop stick structures would collapse, but there they are and there they remain, decade in, decade out, centuries come and go with little importance.
I put my hand up on the back of my headrest, and waited. My daughters familiar hand rested lightly on top of mine, as always. Touching base. Grounding herself. I left my hand there until she shifted away, back to staring out the window. I peered over at my son. My son could never keep his eyes open a single second he was in a car. He was snoozing peacefully, head lolling on the side of his car seat.
We had stopped at some lights, as the road twisted and turned higher still. I stopped and asked my husband if he was sure this was a safe excursion, sulfur hung thick in the air, making my head ache. He ignored me, as usual and kept on driving. I noticed one of the houses had replica statues in the classical Greek and Roman style in their front yard, it was so out of place, so alien, so jarring that I had to suppress a giggle. Laughter was never something that was safe around my husband. To laugh or giggle ran the risk of him taking offense and that was potentially lethal. Every comment, every facial expression, every action had to be weighed and controlled. I lived with a man-shaped bomb.
When we finally pulled into the car park of the egg boiling area, and got out of the car into the little complex of shops, restaurants, and places to view the geysers and boil eggs till the shell blackened alarmingly, I got out and realized how windy it was up here. I was frozen cold, dressed for the usual summer weather. Not up here, up here it was bracingly windy and cool. I unlocked the kids from their carseats, woke up the boy, and pulled his shoes on. Almost immediately my husband stormed off. We were too slow. Holding my daughter’s hand, and clipping the baby into the stroller, I trotted after him, calling his name.
I lost him for a short while. This was his standard M.O. He would run off, after taking me far far away from home, with not a penny to my name, and leave me and the children hunting for him. I cooed at the alarmed kids, that we would simply go back and wait by the car, it was going to be ok. Silly daddy. Bad daddy. Cruel daddy. Fucking pig.
After jogging after him for a while we caught up with him, he had decided to go and get himself a snack. We were not invited. I pulled juice boxes and rice crackers from my diaper bag for the children. My daughter pulled me into the gift shop. Within seconds she had found a little pink beaded bracelet for four hundred yen, the beads glowed in the dark. She put it back, understanding that it was not possible. She would never even ask me, and her father was unlikely to capitulate. I decided to ask him. “She don’t need it” he replied. I pulled out my purse, resolved to somehow make it ok, and extracted a shiny emergency 500 yen coin, pushing it into her little brown hand. She didn’t need encouraging, she ran up to the counter for her precious purchase to be wrapped in a shiny paper bag, while I watched on sadly. There was no question of a small toy car for my son too.
My husband had had enough. He wanted to go. We had barely been there an hour. I packed the children back into their seats, and prepared for the four hour drive back. No doubt we would stop at a place for him to eat. Maybe that nice Chinese restaurant, Bamyan, with the good fried rice, I thought.
As I put my hand back onto the headrest, my daughter’s hand again rested on mine. I felt something out of the ordinary. She was wearing a cheap pink beaded bracelet that glowed in the dark. I looked over to my son, sleeping quietly.
They say if you eat a blacked egg boiled in Owakudani, it adds ten years to your life. Mr. Charming ate two. I didn’t get any. I never trust volcanoes, anyway.