A Storied Life in Japan

Why did you decide that you want to go to Japan? You´ve got to have a solid reason! – I have already mentioned in a few posts how people would ask me all the time why I decided to study abroad or why my interest in Japan. So I smiled when I saw the article that GaijinPot posted this morning. It is inspiring and moving. These stories are my top three favorites:

1º It’s the People

Traveler, musician, runner, gamer, video editor.

As someone who has been living in Japan for a few years, I am often asked why I chose to stay here. By now I should have a perfect, rehearsed response to the question, but each time I’m asked, I give a different answer. There are hundreds of subtle reasons too difficult to explain in a casual conversation. However I will admit to using one of the more common answers other expats give. I love the people here.

When I first arrived and stepped off the airport limousine bus with my ridiculously heavy luggage, I started rummaging carelessly through the insides of my cluttered suitcases in search of my prepaid phone. My sloppy, last-minute packing made it nearly impossible to find, but what I did find was something very sharp. I quickly yanked my hand out, and my finger began to bleed like I had never seen it bleed before. I panicked a little as I realized I was in a new country and there was nothing I could do but stand there squeezing my bloody finger with my half open luggage lying on the ground.

Suddenly a kind stranger came over and handed me some tissues. Then, as if that weren’t nice enough, he returned just a minute later with a box of bandages that he bought from a nearby convenience store. If I could ever meet him somehow to thank him again in proper Japanese and he would probably be surprised that I survived this long. There is still a mark on my finger from where I was cut, but unlike most scars, this one makes me smile.

2º Setsubun Wars

Karaoke pro living in Fukuoka.

I usually finish teaching classes by around 2:30pm most days which gives me a bit of time to make sure I have all my materials prepared and my lesson plans completed for the following day. On one Tuesday afternoon almost a month ago, I was doing just this until a polite teacher from the school I was visiting asked me to help her with something and beckoned me to follow her to her class room. As we got to the outside of her classroom I found that I was not the only person she had asked to help; there were three other teachers there waiting patiently… all of whom were wearing monster masks. One of them handed me a mask and said ‘You are monster!’ before flinging the door open and pulling me into the classroom.

It was a warzone. They attacked us in waves of what felt like thousands. Everywhere seven year old children expertly bombarded us with their weapon of choice: peanuts. I took a peanut to the eye early in the skirmish, severely impairing my monstering ability, before taking several more key hits to my armour-less throat and hands. I was in trouble, and my monster compatriots were too. I looked over to see two of them cowering under the barrage of peanuts whilst another was surrounded on all sides, visibly pleading with two little boys to stop putting peanuts down her top. The battle was clearly lost.

We retreated on mass back into the hallway, before one teacher thankfully closed the door on the carnage. After the battle was over the polite teacher came over laughing happily to herself and said “This is Setsubun.”

Whether it’s Setsubun or something else, for me Japan is a place where even a sleepy Tuesday afternoon can lead to a new experience and a chance to do something you never would have imagined even ten minutes before. Sure you may end up with a peanut to the eye from time to time, but it’s always an interesting place to be.

3º The Perfect Splash

Grooving to Japan’s rhythm.

One of the most famous poems in the world is the frog poem by Basho. The story goes that the poet sat beside a lake and watched a frog jump into the water. When the tiny amphibian hit the water, the splash was so perfect that for a second the sound encompassed the ‘everything’ of his existence. It was a simple noise that was perfect in that moment that he had to capture it in a piece of writing.

I never fully understood the meaning of that concept until I went up to Inunaki-san. At the top of the mountain is a small temple that few tourists visit. You can smell it on the way up because of the aroma of incense. I always think that there is nothing more uniquely oriental than that fragrance. Having spent a large part of my life traveling through Asia, some vague, undefined olfactory memory flooded into my head as soon as I smelt it. I became dizzy with a nostalgia for the hundreds of places and images from my past that rushed into my mind from that one source.

Still reeling from this, my hiking partner and I continued up the mountain path into a main hall where the monks had been meditating for the entire day. Now the same vague, indefinable memories were stirred up by the sound of the holy men chanting. The sound of so many people vocalizing in unison seemed to make the air itself vibrate.

As we came down the mountain the chants had increased to the point that they almost had a rhythmical quality. The monks were so deep into the sounds they were producing that they had changed from words into vocalizations, a blended stream of noise that spoke of the depths of the faith of those chanting.

This remains one of my favorite memories, because for a second, I understood exactly what Basho was trying to say. Often the most amazing memories are the ones that only last for a fraction of a second and are meaningful for us, but would be standard or mundane for anyone else. For Basho this meant writing about frogs and lakes and risking ridicule for these deceptively ‘mundane’ observances. For me, it was a realization of why I love Japan: these little moments of beauty, just waiting to be unearthed by a chance encounter.

You can read the whole article and stories here.

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