Winter in Nippy Nippon

It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes.
Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same.
You realise what’s changed is you.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Those who’ve known me for the longer stint will no doubt be aware that when I was seventeen, I lived in Japan. For those who didn’t know me back then… It started when my high school in the country struck a partnership with a school in Japan, that had a course specialising in English. The resulting twenty students that we hosted in my home town of Swan Hill every year introduced us to a new world of Hello Kitty, Yakisoba, Shingo Mama, and Momotaro. I made friends with some of the students, and desperately wanted my family to host one. The next year in 2001, my parental pestering was rewarded with Marika. Marika spent all of her time with me. We adored each other. We’re still friends (like sisters) today.

It was at about this time that I decided to destroy my bank card in order to save every hard-earned penny to go to Japan for two weeks that September, on the annual school trip. And so off I went, to Okayama to stay in a home stay for a week, and travel the following week.

What I know about myself now is this. When I travel, I have an immediate reaction to a destination. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I like it, and would happily come back if circumstances went that way. And sometimes – I look around and think ‘I could live here”. At age 17, I had the first of these moments, of which I’ve now had few in life. I looked around at the expanse of rice paddocks, the big city sprawl, the endless network of trains and the people who warmly welcomed us, and thought “I could live here”.

To fully understand the enormity of how different this was to my own home – just at surface – you need to have visited Swan Hill or another smallish Australian country town. The population of Swan Hill and surrounding rural shire was only 17,000. The township was surrounded by desert paddocks, some holding crops, some vineyards and some dotted with cattle. I lived 15 minutes out of town in an even smaller town surrounding a lake. My transport day to day was a school bus. There were no tall buildings, one train to the big smoke that departed in the morning and returned in the evening, and everybody knew everybody (and everybody’s business).

Okayama, on the other hand, had suburbs, shopping centres, a network of trains, a shortage of space and sprawls of rice paddocks. While I’d spent all of my holidays with family in Melbourne, this tiny city in Japan felt bigger, scarier, more sophisticated and more unknown than any place I’d been to. But somehow it drew me in.

And so, the following year, I went back. In exchange for the twenty Japanese students to stay in Swan Hill the next year, our sister school – Gakugeikan High School selected one student to host for the year. In 2002, that was me. After visiting for two weeks I had some idea of what I was getting into, but really nothing can prepare you. Had I known beforehand what this year would become, I would absolutely have chosen it again and again. The highs were high, and the lows were low – but never low enough to take it all back.

By the end of the year I could hold fluent conversations with friends, adults and complete strangers in Japanese. I had passed the Level 2 Japanese Fluency Test (Level 1 qualifies you to be an interpreter). I had four other exchange students in my life who were like family, and one of them like my sister. To this day, Emma is still one of my best friends, and understands me at a level that only a year together in extreme circumstances with no-one but each other can really deliver. The one thing I realised on this trip is that the friends that I made, all the contacts were forever, not just forever burned in my memory.

But there were downs too. The stress of immersion into a world so different from your own, the constant translating and speaking in a language so very foreign to your own – sometimes with disastrous mistakes, the pressures of living with home stay families and the dynamics within. All of this took a toll. For a year I had more headaches than ever, I put on weight (rice three times a day will do that), and my skin was in hideous breakouts constantly.

But what I learned about the world and about myself was priceless. This was the year that shaped my future. From 2002, I learned exactly how independent I was. How easily I could make friends. How, in fact, I could go anywhere in the world and be perfectly okay. 2002 gave me wings. So after 15 years of flitting about, I find myself back here in Japan.

My first impression being back here is that everything has changed, but nothing has changed. Japan has become even more efficient, technology more advanced, life so much more sophisticated. Tokyo has become too much for me now, and I find myself preferring small areas like Kyoto, and my old home – Okayama.

The trip was amazing, because it served as a reminder that there are friendships that are forever. The first reminder was my friend Diana, who came to join me from Sydney for a week of shenanigans (Japanigans) and a final goodbye. While on the tour, Diana and I made full use of our Japanese Rail Pass, which gives us access to all JR trains, buses and ferries, with one exception – we were not to take the Nozomi – the fastest of the bullet trains. On about day four, after spending a day in Hiroshima and Miyajima, we made our way to the bullet train station, and confused, accidentally hopped on a forbidden Nozomi to have the second worst train ride of my life (the first, for reference took place with Melissa in Italy, where I injured my leg, and she fell rear first into a train carriage stairwell, buried by my suitcase, which she’d been carrying with some effort from one end of the train to the other, where we had first class seats).

Diana and I ran at last minute to make the train, and as a result got on, with full luggage, at the wrong end of the train (doesn’t this sound familiar?). The two of us made our way to the other end, from first class to economy (a downgrade from the great Italian train ride of 2013). In the process, one of the Japanese first class passengers all but waged war on me, when his leg, protruding into the aisle was grazed by a tourist maneuvering an oversized suitcase which he had strangely not seen coming, and even more strangely could not have made way for if he had. I bowed my lowest and apologised profusely in fluent Japanese. His response was not accepting, and he angrily labelled me with a very racist comment, which I found ironic, given we were in Hiroshima, a city which now represents world peace.

The two of us finally made it to the economy carriage, sweating despite the consistent curtain of snow outside, just in time for a ticket check. Diana showed her rail pass, and the inspector pointed to number four of the terms and conditions. I decided at this point that I no longer spoke Japanese, and the inspector, who clearly spoke no English, held his arms out in a cross, unceremoniously commanding “Get. Off.” in a very impolite tone.

I was delighted to get off at the next stop – firstly because the Shinkansen was going at a vicious speed of 300km/h, and I was continually swallowing to adjust to the pressure. Secondly, because the next stop was my hometown of Okayama, and after fifteen years I was thrilled to be standing on that platform, cold or no cold, train or no train. Unfortunately, what ensued next was a series of confused decisions that saw Diana and I nearly board at least three different trains, including yet another of the forbidden Nozomi – which we did actually board by mistake again. Just as Diana was making herself comfortable, having put luggage away, layers of jackets removed and hanging neatly beside her, I suddenly realised and simply exclaimed “Diana, NO!” to her surprise, before running off the train. Needless to say, eventually, we got back to Tokyo, but not without proving to the Japanese why tourists are such a nightmare and shouldn’t be given a rail pass in their country.

After a week, and many more trains, it was time for Diana to return to Australia without me. Something neither of us were prepared to accept. So following the Houdini that Diana pulled on the train platform for her airport departure (she really didn’t want to do goodbye), I made my way North to Akita and Aomori to meet my friend Momoko.

Momoko and I met at uni, in my first week, when I was about twenty, Determined to be an interpreter, I was doing an Arts – Languages degree, taking Japanese, Spanish, Italian and Linguistics. I thought I was late to my first Spanish class when I arrived to a class full of students. Taking a seat up the back, I found myself sitting next to Momoko who commented on how late I was. I agreed, and we began to chat. It was only then that I realised I was in fact early to my own class (the next class), and super late in my intrusion on the class that was taking place before. Momoko and I became fast friends and I even switched classes to take Spanish with her. She had a very good-looking tutor named Ramon, which may have also provided incentive…

After a few days of freezing temperatures in Momoko’s homeland, and so many laughs with her and her husband, I took myself on a little holiday. The first perhaps ever! I’d dreaded these few days that I knew I would have all to myself. But after a week or so spent with Momoko, my Japanese had returned, getting around had become easier (unfortunate timing for Diana), and perhaps I’d become a little more confident about life. I went to two places – the first was Ise in Mie Prefecture. Ise houses two Shinto shrines, which the Japanese believe everyone should go to once in their lives. The first Shrine is the outer Shrine, the smaller of the two. The grounds surrounding both are beautiful, but it’s recommended you get a guide in order to give it appropriate meaning. I didn’t do so, relying instead on the printed guides, and following others to find my way. This turned out to be a mistake when I followed a large group of Japanese corporates well beyond the public gates of the shrine, and into an enclosed area, for which it turns out they had paid the privilege. Completely ignorant, I waited patiently in queue as they each removed their shoes, while I stood looking awkward and confused – genuinely unsure if I was allowed to be here or not, and clearly not wearing a business suit. The group leader looked on me disapprovingly, got the attention of the priest, pointed to me and said the word “chigau”, meaning different or wrong. I was quickly and unceremoniously shown the gate again, thinking ‘wow, this feels familiar’ and reconsidering the previous notion that the Japanese are terribly polite (between this experience and the “Get. Off” experience, I was beginning to see another side).

Later that evening, I wandered to a restaurant nearby my Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel). They had only opened that week, and the town didn’t get many foreigners. For whichever of these reasons, they were super keen to have a chat and serve me free sake, to which I didn’t say no, although my headache the following morning suggested no would have been ideal after the second round.

 

My Japanese was getting a decent test the last few days alone, and all had been going well until this particular evening. While typically drinking helped me remember vocabulary that had otherwise been buried deep, on this night the alcohol really showed me who’s boss when the restaurant owner inquired as to where I was staying and I explained that I was staying at the Ryokan across the road. He told me he knew the owner, and I tried to reply that he is a nice man, using the word ‘yasashii”. Instead, I confused myself and used a word that had frequented my vocabulary fifteen years ago, but only in the quiet of the other exchange students. The word was “yarashii”, and we used it to describe the female Sports teacher who, despite quite a masculine persona, and a strangely not overly-feminine vocation (for the Japanese), chose to wear uncharacteristically sexy red lipstick day to day. So we called her Yarashii Sensei (Sexy Teacher), because like so many outlying characters in our day to day in Japan, we didn’t know her name, but just knew her by her touch of sexy red lippy. She did once gift me a pair of her earrings, and nearly got me arrested with her at Australian customs, but that’s another story…

So here I am, at the restaurant, describing the old man who owns the hotel as “sexy”, instead of nice. Needless to say, that one didn’t go down quietly.

After Ise, I journeyed to the second of my solitary holiday destinations – Mount Koya. This place I would really recommend as a must see, especially in winter. While Ise is the must-go for Shintoists, Mount Koya is the must-go for Buddhists. It contains the largest cemetery in Japan, and features frequent Buddha statues that the locals very sweetly dress in beanies and clothes in order to keep warm. Apart from these super-cute almost-humans, the place is decked in forests, bridges and lanterns. It feels so authentically Japanese that you expect it to be the setting for the next Studio Ghibli movie. At Koya, you stay in Buddhist Temples, which you can book through standard booking sites. You also get the experience of witnessing a chant ceremony at dawn, just to make it truly authentic.

What did I learn from spending a few days alone? Why how to be alone, of course. I don’t remember ever spending such lengths of time by myself, always choosing to be social and not relishing time in solitude. But when travelling, I found that the joy in being able to do what you want, when you want – while normally I would defer to the plans of my company – was very freeing. I didn’t have to stop and translate for anyone, meaning I took in everything at my own pace, and furthermore had the joy of conversation with anyone and everyone.

After Koya, I finally went on to Okayama, once my home. It was like taking a journey back through time to when I was seventeen, but this time I didn’t have the company of the other exchange students – Emma, Matthew, Iga or Sam. My school, like Japan itself had changed, and yet hadn’t. There were very few of the staff still there (to be expected after 15 years), but those who I knew well were very warm in their welcome, albeit surprised to see me after so long. Going back brought back forgotten memories – many of them hilarious only to me and the other exchange students. Almost like speaking a language that no one else understands.

What struck me most about my trip this time was the variation in palette, in contrast to the colours of India. India had been a palette of browns and beiges, with blurs and splats of brightly dressed women. Japan was a country of shades of brown and gray, and because it was winter, dusted in the whitest of whites.  Australia, as a whole feels like the goldy-beige of dry plains, that almost red terracotta, and the bluest of blue skies that transition to aqua and darken as they sparkle deep in the ocean.

And of course the other striking realisation was that some relationships don’t change. I’m very grateful that I was able to spend time with all of my old friends and family, including:

  • Dirty Diana, the little Houdini who braved a week with me in this crazy country
  • Momoko, her lovely parents, and her superhero husband ‘Komori-zumi’
  • Chie, her housewife-husband Eiji-mama, and her warm and welcoming parents
  • Shiho, who gave me back so many memories of times forgotten
  • The Imoto family – Aki, Yuka, their warm and wonderful parents, and grandfather (who waited all these years for my return!)
  • Marika and her beautiful family, who feel like my family
  • Kodama Sensei, who was once my teacher, my mother and my guide
  • The school principle, Kentaro Mori, and all who made me feel welcome again at Gakugeikan High School
  • Mr Takamori at ELK, who once employed me, and challenged me with some of the hardest questions I’d ever faced regarding the English language

It couldn’t have been a better coming home experience.

 

 

 

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