A Bittersweet Homecoming

Every single night after the (upgraded to) 9.0 magnitude earthquake happened, an aftershock or two would shake the apartment slowly but violently – waking me from another nightmare of burning up in nuclear radiation rays. When that occurred, I would go through a few long moments of sheer terror – trying not to think of how the apartment was located on the twelfth floor and that the elevators would cease to work during an earthquake, putting me in immense danger. But after those first seconds of paralyzing fear ticked by, a tranquility would come over me like fog. I would close my eyes then, to lose myself in the rocking motion until I hit a meditative state, in which nothing was passing frantically through my mind. I did not do this purposefully and am not quite sure, still, how I was able to find calm naturally in situations such as this.  Perhaps it was because I was able to trust myself. Yes, I had no control of the happening of natural disasters or the future, but I knew that I could handle whatever came my way – and if, in the worst case scenario, I ended up hurt or dying, because I knew that I had lived a life filled with happiness, I could die satisfied. In other words, when I think of it now, I was not fearful of dying on my own, away from my family and friends…

But then the earthquake in Shizuoka happened. Like always, I woke up sweating, my heart beating a hundred times a minute, and like always, I laid still in my bed to wait it out. Yet this earthquake – because it occurred closer to Tokyo than the other aftershocks – was not calm and short like the others. Instead, the sound of wood slamming against wood somewhere in the apartment filled my ears as my stomach tried fiercely to get used to the irregular rocking. I tried to close my eyes to find my inner peace, but there had been too many quakes, too much fear of the radiation from the nuclear plant, that I finally hit a breaking point. My parents, friends and family back home were worried sick about me and it occurred to me that if I passed away here, away from them, even if I was fine with that, they would not be. I realized that if I had a child in the same situation as me, I would want her to come home or get out of danger’s way immediately. As these realizations overpowered my mind, I just could not handle it all on my own anymore…and I found myself jumping out of bed to go to the living room, to see if the others were not worried about the earthquake as well.

There, Hyuma-san and Yuko-san’s mother were watching the news on television intently. “There has been a magnitude six earthquake in Shizuoka, ” Hyuma-san informed me as I walked in, to turn quickly back to the TV. “There is no fear of a tsunami because it occurred on land.” Those words filled me with relief at first, but listening to the news made it clear that this earthquake had happened on a different tectonic plate than the 9.0 magnitude quake in northern Japan. In other words, this was not an aftershock like all of the rest. This fact brought back the rapid beats of my heart because now, we had to worry about earthquakes happening on two plates…and even though I was supposed to go down to my grandmother’s house down in Nagoya the next day, there was a possibility that the Shikansen would stop – especially if another quake happened there – causing me to be stuck in Tokyo.

It was then that I made up my mind that I wanted to go home to America. Up until then, I had brushed that option away from my mind, since there was still so much I wanted to do in Tokyo during my last three months there. I had wanted to see the famous cherry blossom trees that draped branches made heavy with pink, sweet-smelling flowers over the Sumida River, was looking forward to going back to school to take challenging, interesting classes once more, had wanted to interview more Tokyo citizens and desperately craved to go down to Nagoya to sleep next to my hilarious Obaachan (grandma) and listen with all my might to her stories and wise lessons. But more than anything, I had wanted to say goodbye properly, with letters, presents, words and tears – to my precious school friends, teachers, host families, and to Tokyo. Yet those thoughts were pushed far from the center of my mind after this new development and I found myself chatting on Facebook with my parents to see if I could get on a plane home.

Thanks to the wonderful and somewhat mysterious power of Joel – even though it was said that the last ticket out of Tokyo was already sold – by the time I went to sleep that night (near one in the morning), I had a ticket out of Narita to Chicago, in a business class seat at that!

After head-pounding hours of lying in my bed, desperately trying to sleep and failing to, I finally got up at five AM to talk to my parents again to figure out the game plan and to try to put something into my churning stomach. I knew I could only handle vegetables, so I ate a whole carrot – and when I tried to finish a hamburger I had left the night before, I threw it up…

I did not actually believe that I would be really be able to come home to Chicago – I feared that something would go wrong and I would be stuck in Tokyo with no way home – while I gathered all of my belongings in two huge, heavy suitcases and one small one, bid a tearful goodbye to Akiko-san and Saki-chan and put use to my arm muscles to carry the suitcases up train stairs with the help of my program director, only to find out that the trains to Narita were closed down. So we took the second option, which was to take a bus.

During the bumpy, hour-long ride to Narita, I text messaged all of my precious classmates to inform them of my decision to head home. “I am so very sorry to leave without saying a proper goodbye,” I wrote, while tears welled up, not quite spilling over just yet, “but I will be back to see you guys. Please come to my house in America!!” Then I stared back at the disappearing skyscrapers and looked forward to the flat towns and rice fields ahead…and I remembered arriving here a lifetime ago, scared out of my mind, blown away by the sight of so many people, of the crowded trains and towering buildings. I saw myself at my all-girls’ high school, in full uniform, laughing and talking to my sweet classmates, writing heartfelt letters to my favorite teachers, challenging myself with the coursework…and with that, memories – colorful and realistic – in the form of moving pictures, flooded forth. I saw the moonlit walk home across Tokyo after the earthquake with Aya, listening to Lady Gaga, saw little Yushin-kun point out places on a map of America and feeling the warmth of that laughter fill me with happiness, felt the beauty of Tamasaburo’s dainty, white fingers as he danced in the kabuki play, felt my first tears and heart-wrenching fear at the realization that my cell phone would be taken away at school, saw the gleeful, energetic smile of the old woman in that deep black kimono as she danced at the Bon Odori festival and finally, I felt the little feet of the swallow grabbing at the skin of my hand as it spread its wings to fly away.

And I realized that as I hoped so long ago that that fragile, tiny swallow would make its way safely to the Philippians, to return again someday, all I could do in this disastrous, dangerous,  terrifying situation was to hope. I could only hope with all my might that the nuclear power plant would find a solution and stop letting out radiation, could only hope that my friends and family would not be in harm’s way in the coming months and that there would be no more huge, devastating earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, or across the world…

When we arrived at the airport, I was blown away by the sheer number of people who filled the airport – mass chaos seemed to be ensuing. There were long lines, with worried-faced men, women and children holding tight to their luggage, waiting patiently to check in. I was now on my own and I had no clue what to do… so again, terror and worry filled me, but luckily, this time, after a few moments of freaking out, I was able to persuade myself that I could do this and my usual calm returned. So I set out to find the American airlines check-in, dragging  my two heavy suitcases through tiny openings of people and suitcases, apologizing constantly. After asking a couple of people of the location, one woman in uniform finally pointed me in the right direction.

After handing over my two heavy suitcases, I tried to remember what I would have to do next and decided to sit down in the seats in the middle of the airport for a second. Glancing down at my phone, I saw that Sae-san, a very, very kind woman who was a relative of my father’s host family in Nagoya, had called me multiple times, so I called her back to tell her I was safely in the airport. As her relieved cries filled my ear, the airport began to shake – another earthquake. Fear rippled through the lines and lines of people and the others sitting in the seats in front, back and to the side of me. The man who had been staring into his phone, sitting in the seat right in front of me jumped up in shock. Yet I did not budge – I was too used to earthquakes by then…

Because of the wonderful calls from Sae-san, who helped me calmly and easily through the airplane process, I was able to make it to my gate with two hours to spare. I was unable to call my parents to tell them of this news, so I found a pay-to-use internet service nearby, to email them instead. I kept on texting my friends and called Aya just ten minutes before boarding, to tell her goodbye. Many times, I found myself dangerously close to tears, but not wanting to bawl in front of those waiting in the seats at the gate with me, I held them fiercely back.

On the eleven hour plane ride home, I had nightmares every time the plane rocked that I was in a gigantic earthquake again and when I would wake up, I would be terrified that the airplane was going down and that I would not be able to make it home to Daddy and Mommy and all of my loving family and friends…

Luckily, the plane arrived safely into O’Hare International Airport and I went through Customs, gathered my luggage to put on a cart and showed my passport a couple of times, all in a sleepy daze, feeling a bit sick to my stomach from the bumpy ride.

Suddenly, I heard my name. “Sotchan!!” “Sora-chan!!” I looked up to see Daddy and Mommy jumping up and down outside the clear sliding door, waving away. That woke me up – and I began to run, rolling the heavy cart all the way out the door and into their arms.

Home sweet home. 🙂

Earthquake Adventures

Friday was one of those chaotic days when nothing seems to go as planned. Aya and I were supposed to meet at the Ikebukuro station at eleven to go see a movie together, but ended up meeting at noon. We also had planned to watch the movie first and then eat, but thanks to our starving stomachs, we ate lunch first and bought tickets to the next showing…and when we finally sunk into our comfortable theater seats, completely prepared to experience a world of adventure and action through the eyes of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the earthquake happened.

…and that was when Aya and Aozora’s long day of thrilling adventure began.

I had just finished gobbling up a packet of chocolate-filled pretzels and was wondering to myself how the other three packets could last me through the two-hour movie if I had already devoured one just during the previews, when I began to feel queasy. At first I thought I was going to pass out like I did on the airplane, because everything seemed to be rocking. “Aya,” I whispered, my smile turning confused, “I feel – ” Yet I could not finish, for at that moment, the whole movie theater jolted side to side – and kept on jolting. There was a hush – then everyone in the theater – young couples, friends and families – began to talk all at once. The word “earthquake” rumbled like thunder throughout the theater and lit the match of panic inside of me. My brain went into overdrive as to what to do in this situation so unnatural to me and I threw out question after question to poor Aya, who grabbed my hand and pulled me down in between the seats. While the world shook and the screen blacked out after a particularly heavy shake, couple after couple gathered their belongings to rush out of the theater. Watching this, Aya and I locked eyes and grabbed our belongings as well, but our hands stopped mid-air when we overheard a conversation between the young couple behind us. “It’s okay – just don’t move,” the guy was telling his girlfriend, the powerful tone in his voice not quite disguising the fear and panic there, too, “DON’T MOVE.” With that, Aya and I squatted down again. Eons seemed to pass until the shaking finally started to subside – but when it did, we breathed a sigh of relief and stood back up. Soon a theater representative entered and asked those of us who were still left to please evacuate, using the stairs.

“I am so scared, Aya,” I kept repeating as we rushed our way down to the ground floor, to look with horror at the sight of crowds and crowds of people down on the streets of Ikebukuro milling about, all looking just as confused as we were. It looked as if every single square foot of the sidewalks below the gigantic skyscrapers were taken up by people. I assumed that all of the shoppers from every building in Ikebukuro had evacuated, like we did. With that came the scary realization that hoards of people and twenty-story high buildings added to a large earthquake could only result in severe danger. Just imagining buildings collapsing and all of those crowds and crowds of people screaming and rushing, toppling over each other to get away from the falling objects was enough to cause a gigantic tsunami wave of panic to sweep over me. “Aya, we need to get out of here!” I cried to my friend, who was looking bewildered as well, “We need to escape to a park or something!”

So that was how we found ourselves pushing our way through the crowd and into the Ikebukuro train station. Yet when we arrived at the entrance to the JR line (a safer choice than the subway, according to Aya, because they ride on top of land, getting rid of the risk of the tunnel collapsing and not being able to get out), we were greeted by a rare sight. I was used to seeing the liveliness of people rushing a million directions in train stations, but instead of this, we saw large numbers of people just standing in the station. An announcement on the speakers informed us of the reason – all of the trains had stopped moving because of the large earthquake, which had apparently occurred in Northern Japan.

Deflated and terrified, we jumped to Plan B, which was to communicate back home. Aya tried to call her parents while I texted my host mother to inform her of my situation and to ask what I should do. We both had trouble getting through the phone lines, but after many tries, were able to call and text eventually. Both my host mother and Aya’s mother answered that we should wait in a safe place until the trains move again, and come home then.

The safest place to be at, we soon learned from a kind, elderly man on the street, was the central plaza, because it is an equal distance away from both lines of skyscrapers. He also explained that the buildings would topple not sideways, like a tree, but were made to crumble straight down. Aya and I followed his advice and sat down in the middle of the cement plaza. Aya cursed herself for deciding to wear high heels. I then received a text and missed call from Sae-san – a member of Daddy’s host family in Nagoya – wondering if I was okay, and it hit me then that all of my panic and terror were gone. Yes, I was in the middle of one of the most populous shopping districts of Tokyo with no way home – but Aya was there with me and I had a strong gut feeling that everything would turn out fine.

On the cement, Aya and I layed out all of our belongings and figured that we were pretty well prepared – we had lots of snacks, a book and ipod to keep us company, our cell phones and even an umbrella. But we lacked water and Aya was becoming cold sitting in the vast, windy plaza, so we made our way across the street and to the nearest cafe. To our dismay, it had closed and did not even let us receive a drink of water. Looking around, we saw that most of the shops and restaurants in Ikebukuro had closed down because of the quake.

Even though two hours had passed by this point since the earthquake happened, the trains were still not moving and an exhausted announcer kept repeating that he was deeply sorry for the inconvenience and that he did not know when the trains would commence to move again.

It was quite clear that everyone in Ikebukuro – thousands and thousands of people – wished to go home. There were lines – a quarter of a mile long, at least – for to ride taxis out of the city and for buses. There were crowds around the koban (police station) of panicked people yelling out questions. People lined the outsides of buildings, train station stairs and the central plaza – sitting, standing, couples snuggling close to keep warm, trying to contact someone – anyone, to come get them – others playing games on their phones and ipods – all waiting for to go home.

After three hours of waiting, it became terribly clear that the trains would not begin to move until very late that night. Aya’s parents realized this as well and since the roads were already clogged with cars not able to move, they resorted to the final and only option left – to walk across Tokyo to come and get us.

Four hours in, we both had to go to the bathroom, so we entered the train station again. There – perhaps because of it was warmer inside – even more people covered the stairs and pathways. Aya and I agreed that if another large earthquake came, this would be the most dangerous place to be at, since we would be unable to get out. When we reached the bathroom, we were taken back by the sheer number of women waiting in line. Funnily enough, though the women’s line snaked across the station, there was no line to speak of for the men’s room next to it.

An hour later, we decided to head to a place where Aya’s parents could find us easily. We ended up at a karaoke shop in south Ikebukuro which – thank heaven – was open. We were able to sit, wait, and eat our remaining snacks with fellow stranded people in the warmth of the shop. I wrote while Aya slept. I could not seem to let myself close my eyes, as well, though I was exhausted. But still, calm Zoe prevailed and continued to conquer until Aya’s parents finally arrived two hours later.

By that time, it was ten at night and Aya and I had been waiting in Ikebukuro for a total of eight hours. Aya’s parents looked pooped – and justly so – after trekking for four hours across Tokyo. Aya’s mother, a tall woman with a big laugh, was carrying a four-year-old dachshund in a pouch in front of her like a baby while Aya’s father had been carrying a mountain-climbing bag that he opened then to give Aya a change of shoes and an overcoat.

After filling the room with relieved cries that we were alright, Aya’s father promptly collapsed on the seat to rest his exhausted legs while Aya’s mother refused to sit, saying how she knew she would not be able to get up if she did – and rocked the large-eyed, terrified-looking dog instead.

While Aya used the restroom, they filled me in on how the sidewalks all throughout Tokyo were crowded with people – all walking home. Their eyes got wide when they filled me in on the gigantic, rushing tsunami waves they saw in a river near Ochanomizu – an effect of the earthquake. “Those waves – it was nothing like I have ever seen before,” Aya’s mother told me with feeling, still rocking. Aya’s father just had the energy to nod in agreement.

They had tried to buy snacks for us on the way, but every store they passed were sold out of rice balls and most snacks – with no doubt every Tokyo-ite was not stocking up on food and water in case another large earthquake came, this time to Tokyo.

Perhaps because I still did not know the disastrous effects of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake on the northern part of Japan, or maybe because I was punchy from exhaustion – but as we started the long walk home, I found myself laughing quite frequently. There was a kind of happiness and relief that filled me to the brim as I put a skip into my step and pointed out the slice of the moon shining brightly in the sky, to Aya. It was dark and cold and when I think of it now, a bit unsafe to be walking across a large city at night, but for some reason, I was overflowing with love and happiness.

Aya’s father looked as if his legs could not carry him any longer, so we took a taxi through part of the city until we hit a traffic jam. After walking a bit more, we found a train line that had begun to move and decided to take it home.  When we arrived at the entrance to the station, we gasped at the large line of people waiting to take the train. Luckily for us, they were all waiting for the Namboku line (a line I take to school) while we were riding another.

The station was filled with people and when the train came, we had to cram our way into it. Coco – the little dog – began to shake uncontrollably, so we decided to get ff at the very next stop. Coco had been rescued from being abused and mistreated, so she does not trust anyone but Aya’s mother and feared trains.

Thus, we continued the walk home, with Aya’s father stopping from time to time at stop lights to stretch and to rest. We passed baseball stadiums, ferris wheels, large college campuses, the famous Sumida river and the newly constructed Sky Tree skyscraper, which was in competition to be the world’s next tallest building…and I was thankful for the fact that I was able to see all of these sights at night and that I could have this unbelievable experience of walking home in the dark.

Three and a half hours into our walk, Aya and I were sharing a pair of earphones and listening to Lady Gaga when Aya’s mother told us excitedly that we were a ten minute walk from their home. We stopped then to stock up on ready to eat rice and other foods and carried it all the way up to the sixth floor of their apartment building – the elevator had stopped because of the quake – and then, upon entering their apartment, all four of us collapsed on top of the rug in the living room. Aya’s house was trashed by the quake – her parents did not have time to clean up before setting out to get us – CDs and books had fallen to the ground and the china above the TV in the living room were leaning up against the glass of the pantry, looking as if they could fall any minute.

By this point, Aya and I had brushed off the earthquake as minor and Aya had even said that she believe it would not go down in history, but turning on the TV proved how wrong we were. Images of flooded towns, fires at nuclear plants, tsunami waves crashing into houses and blowing them to slitherines filled the screen…and on the top right corner of the news broadcast : over five hundred lives lost and counting.

At once, my calm and contentment disappeared as I realized that as I waited in Ikebukuro, lives were lost and whole towns were destroyed. It was a shocking and awful truth.

After informing everyone in America of my safety and as the aftershocks rocked the house, all at once my energy drained and I craved sleep more that anything in the world.

As I lay down in Aya’s room and closed my eyes to sleep, scenes rushed across my mind – I saw myself stuck in Ikebukuro for eight hours, the horrible traffic jams on the roads and the sight of so many people stuck in the city with no way home. Then the scenes on TV flooded my mind – of floating bodies, fearful families awaiting news of the whereabouts of relatives and fires burning throughout the night. Finally, the kind, worried voices of my family and friends in Japan and in America – all calling out to me to know of my safety – rang in my ears.

And I realized then the reason for my unending calm that day – it was because it had not felt real and I had handled it like a dream. But right then, the reality of it all came crashing down on me and filled me with terror…and as a faded into Dreamland I hoped with all my might that when I woke up the next morning, everything would turn out to be just a horrible dream.

Yet still, the nightmare continues…

Mind-numbing Decisions

At the end of this month, I will hear from the University of Chicago of my acceptance decision and in April, I will know if I am accepted to Northwestern University and Washington University in St.Louis. Then with all of the decisions known, I will have less than a month to decide what college I would like to spend the next four years of my life at.

What a gigantic decision.

I have always been quick at deciding things – what clothes to buy, what classes to take, how and when to study abroad during high school. But this – there is a gut feeling deep within me that tells me that this decision, of where to attend college, will be vastly difficult and thus will take a lot of time and mental energy.

I used to believe that I wanted to become a journalist. I love writing what I observe and communicating using words on paper…and I had the grand idea that I could use both my Japanese and English fluency to create interesting stories, to connect people to people. I still have this dream – but it is not my sole dream anymore. I blame my math and science centered class for that. This is because I realized by taking difficult math and science courses and challenging myself, that I like solving problems and learning the science that surrounds us, and that I was better at doing this than I initially thought.

So it hit me recently that I just want to learn. I want to find out more and more about the world and sponge it all up. I desire to meet all different types of people and travel to all sorts of places and experience all sorts of things – that is what I would like to do these next four years.

I do not want to prepare myself for a specific job – just learn, sponge up, take it all in. I am infinitely curious.

So the question is – where. Where can I be exposed to mind expanding classes and people? Daddy says all undergraduate colleges basically offer the same level of education, especially because of Honor’s colleges and such. So at the end, it all comes down to money.

The three colleges that I am still waiting to hear from mostly offer need-based aid, which I hardly qualify for. So unless (if I get in, of course) they offer me scholarship aid, I do not believe it would be a good idea to attend.

Today I found out that I was chosen as a finalist for Illinois State University’s Presidential Scholarship. This means that I was offered something close to a full ride for all four years. I also probably will be able to get scholarship money for a study abroad. On top of all of this, I will be in the Honor’s College and will be able to take Honor’s classes as well as special course designated for PS Scholars. If I attend ISU, since it is only thirty minutes away from home, I could even live and eat at home while attending, cutting back on my spending even more.

This is all very tempting – but. College is a time when children start to live away from home, when they spread their wings a bit. If I attended ISU and lived at home I am afraid that I might go back to my dependent self. There is crazy need inside of me that would like me to fly far, far away from home. At the same time, however, these months in Tokyo have made me realize just how important my home is to me and that I live more happily surrounded by nature and my family, so there is a pull that roots me back home.

What a difficult decision!

…and in all of this turmoil, I am waiting in anticipation and fear of my last three admission decisions. I try not to care so much about it, but deep down I still have that perfectionist attitude that I do not wish to “fail” at anything. I want so much to be accepted to all six colleges. A few nights ago, I actually had a nightmare that I found out I was not accepted into the University of Chicago and I was so shocked and let down that I started to cry. You cannot imagine the relief that flooded over me when I realized, upon waking, that it was all just a dream…

So, as these days and weeks seem to fly by – I wait in terror and anticipation.

I am now on Spring Break, after completing eleven final tests over a span of four days. The test results were so-so, but I was very proud of my World History, Biology and Modern Japanese scores, since they all have gotten better as the semester went on. In Biology, my teacher told me that my test score put me in the top one-third of the class! My biology teacher was also kind enough to write me a note at the very end of my biology notebook, that said that she appreciated the fact that  I worked very hard this semester and to continue to work hard next school year, when I will have to take Chemistry and Physics. She even gave me a sheet of beautiful Japanese-style stickers. I was so overjoyed that I wrote her a letter back, saying how biology class was truly difficult, since I needed to memorize words upon words of Japanese scientific vocabulary, but that it was enjoyable. I thanked her for her kindness and for her semester of teaching.

I also love my Modern Japanese teacher – a woman in her late twenties – and was quite depressed to hear that she may not be our Modern Japanese class teacher next school year (Japanese school years start in April and end in March), so I wrote her a long letter, as well.

I feel infinitely lucky to have had so many kind, talented teachers here in Japan. Next school year, I plan on taking a calligraphy class – which is quite exciting!

During this month-long Spring Break, I plan on going out with friends to shop and watch movies. I also will go down to Nagoya for two weeks to visit my grandma and family there. 🙂

I feel as if my time here is nearing the end – it will be so difficult to say goodbye to all of the wonderful people I have met during my time here…

Simple Laughter

“Oh, honey…you can just sit down over there and watch,” an energetic, eccentric, spiky-haired woman in her sixties told me with a smile, “We don’t have a pair of rain boots for you to use.” All around her, four or five older men and women were shoveling light brown, sandy dirt from a large mound on the side of a small square garden located behind a Japanese-style house. As I watched them bend over to transfer dirt from the mound into a wheel barrel, to then roll over to the center of the garden to dump, I was reminded of Grandma and Grandpa and the whole family gathering back home to plant or to harvest…and I itched so much to help out.

I was in a country-side town in the Chiba prefecture – about an hour’s drive from Tokyo – nearby the Pacific Ocean. Yet I was not with my usual companions – Saki-chan and Akiko-san – but together with the Nakamura family, which consists of Hyuma-san (father), Yuko-san (mother) and their three-year old son, Yushin-kun. Yuko-san is pregnant with another baby boy and is due this month. I am living with this host family for about a week, since last Thursday, when I finished my eleven final tests, and until the end of this week. On Sunday, we went down to Hyuma-san’s parents’ home to visit and found them working to help level off a garden.

Back at the small field, I began to beg to help – since I found it unfair that Hyuma-san was helping but not me – and finally, Hyuma-san’s father – a calm, comforting man with kind eyes – lent me an extra shovel. Soon I was piling dirt into a wheel barrel with the others, using my arm muscles as much as possible in order not to hurt my back. It had been too long since I had last handled dirt, so I was rusty at first, but soon I was making a rhythm out of digging and dumping…and farm girl Zoe was officially back! It felt so natural to be working in dirt that before I knew it, I was smiling and laughing. The other men and women were talking and laughing as well and from time to time I would hear them say, “Well, would you look at her!” or, “How quickly she can work!” and another voice would answer, “It’s because she’s still young, she has energy.” Overhearing this, my smile would grow wider.

After I rolled a couple heavy wheel barrels over to the center, Yushin-kun, who had been sitting shyly at the side of the garden, watching everyone work with his mother, got up to announce that he wanted to help, as well. Thus, he began to put dirt into a tiny bucket he had brought with him and dumping its contents into the wheel barrel, which was the same height as him. His grandparents watched him with adoring eyes and we all clapped to cheer him on, which made him jump up and down in glee.

Hyuma-san’s mother (lovingly called ‘Baaba’ by Yushin-kun) began to roll the wheel barrel for us, but she would run away with it when it would get to be not even halfway full, causing us to laugh hilariously…and I realized then that this atmosphere – of simple laughs and being covered in dirt, breathing in fresh, good, country air – was what I missed most. In the populous city of Tokyo, I always feel as if everyone is staring off into different directions, lost in separate worlds..and I have realized that my happiness lies in the black, fertile soil of the Bottomland. Perhaps those walking the crowded streets of Tokyo are just as happy as me, without being surrounded by nature. But living in Tokyo for seven months has taught me that there are invisible strings always pulling me back to the farm.

Soon, the mound disappeared and the garden was flat – ready for some potatoes to be planted.

After a ramen lunch at a local restaurant, Hyuma-san took me to the ocean. The beaches there are called Kujukuri. ‘Kujuku’ means ninety-nine, a number that symbolizes infinity, and ‘ri’ is an old Japanese distance measurement from the Edo times, so the name means that the beaches seem to go on forever. The area there is popular for surfing, especially during the winter, according to Hyuma-san.

When we arrived home, I helped Baaba make chirashizushi (mixed rice) for dinner and she asked me to start talking to her only in English, since she would like to be able to speak it in order to communicate during the many trips she and her husband take across the world. They had just got back from India (they showed me pictures of the Taj Mahal) and Korea – such an energetic couple! Her husband works at the Narita airport as an electrical engineer and therefore is able to travel a lot.

In between our English conversation and cooking, Baaba showed me the contents of her garden. They not only grow lemons but oranges, plums and cherries. For veggies, they grow peas, broccoli, spinach, celery and more, even during the winter, which made me a bit jealous. All, Baaba told me proudly, are grown without the use of pesticides.

Then Baaba got a sparkle in her eyes and brought over a couple of rotten-looking oranges. She peeled one and gave me a slice to eat. It did not taste like any orange I had ever eaten before – but deeper and sweeter, like the orange was putting out every last ounce of the sugar and goodness it had left before it was too late. “Oranges taste the best when the outside looks rotten like this,” Baaba explained with a smile. I believed her – not only because it was indeed delicious, but because I remembered how back home, half rotten tomatoes and apples – those veggies and fruits deemed ‘for-us-es’ – were in fact the most delicious.

When we went inside agin, I squeezed the lemons that I had harvested earlier to add to the rice, and watched as Baaba made a gorgeous, colorful arrangement out of the bed of white rice (grown locally, she told me proudly) and red pieces of smoked salmon, thinly sliced cucumbers, scrambled eggs and black seaweed sprinkled on top.

After devouring the delicious dinner and being forced to watch a toy car commercial DVD over and over by a car-crazy Yushin-kun, Yushin-kun and Gan-chan (a nickname for Yushin-kun’s grandfather) took a bath together followed by the rest of us.

Then we waited as Hyuma-san readied the car for to leave. Baaba got out a map of the United States and I showed her where Central Illinois was. Soon, though, Yushin-kun trampled over to “show” us where his house was on the map – apparently in the middle of Kansas.

We all laughed as he showed us where Baaba and Ganchan lived (Tennessee) and I was filled to the brim with sweet, peaceful contentment.

That feeling continued as we left the house in the darkness – me pulling Yushin-kun’s sleepy hand – as I stared up into the gorgeous lights of the stars (something Tokyo skies lack) and waved goodbye to Baaba and Ganchan…and as I finally lay my head against the glass of the car window to sleep.

Natural Mathematics

This gorgeous vegetable was found at the supermarket by Akiko-san. It was first discovered in the 16th century in Italy. Its shape is a natural fractal, which means that shapes repeat in smaller proportions. Akiko-san wondered if Daddy grows and knows of this kind of broccoli. We do not grow it, that I know for a fact – but I pose this question: does Daddy know of this spectacular vegetable?

Snow and Joy

My first sighting of snow in Tokyo occurred in Classical Japanese class two weeks ago, when humongous blobs of white came barreling down from the gray sky. I watched this through the large window I sit by in considerable awe. I had forgotten the existence of snow, of the white flakes that fell crisply in the bitter Illinois wind as I trekked through the layered accumulation on the ground in my winter boots to do my chores – of the joy and thrill of slipping and sliding on the ice that covered our long driveway all the way home from the bus stop with Kazami, laughing up a storm. As I watched this Tokyo snow, these huge blobs that drifted furiously down to hit the ground and disappear almost instantly, all of these snow-related memories came flooding forth. Yet it was not sadness, or homesickness, that erupted within me as I did this, but pure happiness. “Yuki! (Snow!)” I shouted, “Look, everyone! Snow is falling!” The girls in my class, who I have come to love with all of my heart for their purity and openness, laughed at my sudden outburst, but they looked happy to see the rare snow, as well.

A couple days later, on Friday, Saki-chan and I had no school because of a national holiday and Akiko-san was off from work, so we decided to drive down to a jinja (shrine) located in the Ibaraki prefecture. Akiko-san explained to me as we left the house early in the morning that it is an old Japanese tradition to visit a shrine in the early Spring. In the Edo times, people gathered money in a “bank” all year long to use to make the trip down to a Jinja, stopping by an onsen (hot spring bath) on the way. In other words, it was a spiritual vacation. Her father had never missed this annual trip and she wanted to continue this tradition. In the car, we ate bananas, strawberries and baked chesnuts for breakfast as snowflakes – more flake-y and light this time – hit the window pane again and again. All three of us were in good, energetic moods as we exited the busy city, but soon the lull of the car put Saki-chan and I to sleep.

An hour and a half and a nap later, the scenery outside my window had changed from the gigantic skyscrapers of central Tokyo to flat rice fields sprinkled in white and long greenhouses capped in snow. “We’re in Kasama!” called Akiko-san from the driver’s seat, “We’ll be there in five minutes!” Kasama (笠間) is the name of the town the Inari Jinja is located in and the name is said to have originated from the word 風間 (kazama) , or “where wind cannot pass through”.

Sure enough, five minutes later, I found myself staring out into the spectacular, enormous Inari Jinja. Japan has two main religions – Buddhism and Shinto – and thus has two different places of worship: temples and shrines. This Inari shrine is devoted to the kami (deity) Inari, also known as Ukanomitama no kami. “Uka” stands for food, or the “mysterious spirit dwelling in grain” , so basically, Inari is the deity of the five grains and foodstuffs. It is also known as the deity of fertility and reproduction, rebirth, growth and productivity, and protection against fire. Many other Shrines across Japan are devoted to this important deity, but the Kasama Inari shrine is one of the three largest and most famous of these. It was founded in 651 AD during the reign of Japan’s 36th Emperor Kotoku and remained popular in the Kanto area throughout thirteen centuries. During the Tokugawa reign (or Edo period), because the Kasama Domain’s fuedal lord gave the Shrine a devoted patronage, the Kasama Inari shrine became known not only throughout the Kanto area, but all over Japan. Today, more than 3.5 million people visit the Kasami Inari shrine in a given year.

Perhaps because of the snowfall, or because of the economic recession, the Shrine was not crowded when we approached. Akiko-san sounded sad as she recounted that it was the first time she had seen so little turnout. As Saki-chan warmed up inside the Hall of Worship, Akiko-san and I explored the expansive shrine. Placed all around the shrine in various spots were statues of foxes, which are said to be messengers to the Inari deity. On both sides of the walk up to the main shrine, little shops sold souvenirs. There were also many large, ancient-looking trees that stood grandly next to the shrine.

Akiko-san had signed us up in the Prayer Office for a special ritual worship performed by the shrine’s priests, so after the quick tour, we went inside the Hall of Worship to sit down with about thirty other people in front of four priests in ancient customary Japanese kimono wear. We bowed our heads as the priests performed the worship. The pitch and sound of the prayer by the oldest priest sounded similar to African or Arabic chants. Halfway through, one of the priests shook a broom-like object above our heads to symbolize the driving away of evil spirits. Near the end, Akiko-san, as the representative of our family- went forward with the other representatives to place an evergreen branch on a tiny table as an offering to the kami.  She bowed, clapped her hands twice, and bowed again. The bowing represents the showing of deep, great respect for the kami and the clapping is said to represent the unification of ying and yang.

After eating a delicious lunch of udon and soba noodles at a local noodle restaurant and visiting a sake shop, we said our last goodbyes to the Inari Shrine and got in the car again. This time, we headed towards the ocean, or the Oarai seashore. The snow had changed to pouring rain and the wind was strong near the ocean, but nevertheless I was very happy to see the Pacific. The sky above was gray, covered in looming clouds and dangerous, large waves thundered toward the shore. I walked down the cement steps and closed my eyes to the waves crashing, again and again, against the rock-covered sand. When I opened my eyes again, I looked out into the dark expanse of water that seemed to continue out forever.

And there, out in those strong, undoubtedly freezing waves, was a small black figure. I peered closer and was astounded to discover that it was someone – too far away to tell if it was a man or a woman – surfing in a black wet suit. I watched, amazed, as the tiny person rode a wave or two, only to be swallowed up again and again. Suddenly the figure disappeared into a particularly large wave and I became terrified that he or she had drowned. Yet soon enough, I was able to spot the black blur of the surfer’s suit, trying to get back on the board yet again.

Watching this, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in those icy waves, feeling the cold wind hit my bare skin, as rain trickled down from the sky. What would it be like to be so far from safety – trying to ride a small surf board in the middle of winter? As I wondered and watched, as wind and rain splashed against my face, as the waves kept on barreling toward me, I was suddenly wrapped up in an indescribable emotion – of wanting desperately to laugh and cry at the same time – of joy and sorrow and all of the above, of life hitting me all at once.

Later, after I had picked up a light blue heart-shaped rock from the shore, I turned back to the dark surfing figure and hoped with all my might that he or she would be able to escape the chaos of the ocean to tread back safely to shore.

Strength in Composure

The sight of Acoya entering through a side door, escorted by six protective men – three in front and three following her in back – to slide her way daintily and gracefully up the aisle and onto the stage immediately took my breath away. It was not just me, either – it was as if the whole audience sucked in their breath at once and held it unconsciously – as all eyes took in her gold, shining kimono, to linger on the beautiful peacock in front that looked as if it could spread its gorgeous, round, gold and blue feathers any minute. My eyes traveled up to her snow-white skin on her face, red lipstick, rosy hue around her eyes, all framed by her large, heavy-looking black hair swept up in Edo fashion.

She glided down that aisle, a reserved, solemn expression on her face, slowly putting one dainty foot in front of the other, with her back arched and knees bent. To the tip of her white, slender hands, she was graceful creature…a swan, or something out of this world…

The stage held an Edo-style house that was raised above the stage, with stairs leading up to it. On the right, five shamisen players and five singers sat in two rows, one above the other. In the house, a white-faced Lord and orange-faced puppet-Lord sat in await of the woman. In Kabuki, Akiko-san explained later, good and evil are separated by color. Those in white are protagonists while those in orange were antagonists. The puppet – really a human playing the role of a puppet, with two “puppeteers” in back making the puppet move – was included in this production of Acoya for comic effect. His black, mechanical eyebrows moved up and down periodically, producing laughter from the crowd. Since he was a “puppet”, one of the singers on the right voiced his lines as he moved his mouth, turning his head dramatically. Watching this, I was reminded of how in middle school, I had to play the role of a puppet-like girl and had to memorize movements to do while another actor said lines. This was exceptionally difficult and I failed miserably, because to move simultaneously to lines requires both actors to “read” each other. Yet here this puppet and singer were, moving and crying out lines as one.

The play “Acoya” takes place in ancient Japan, when the Genji and Heiki groups were at war with each other. The Lords of this story are on the Genji side and have found out that this woman’s lover is plotting to kill their Genji leader. Since they believe this woman – Acoya – to know where her lover is, they bring her in to find out his exact location. Acoya makes it clear that she does not know where her precious man has gone, which the two Lords do not believe. They decide to torture her to find out the real answer. The orange faced evil Lord suggests the use of hurtful torture goods to be used on her, but the white-faced good Lord disagrees. He orders for three instruments – a koto, shamisen and kokyu – to be brought out and to be played. The Lord believes that a person cannot lie when playing such instruments.

Thus, Acoya plays each instrument passionately, sorrowfully and masterfully, singing her heart out of her love for her man and that she does not know where he is, or if he has died. She takes off her peacock cover kimono to reveal a striking red kimono underneath and first commences playing the koto. Akiko-san has been taking koto lessons and knows just how difficult it is to play. She told me afterwards that at first she did not believe that Acoya was actually playing the koto and thought that someone was behind her, playing, and Acoya was mimicking the movements – yet she was wrong. Acoya held her white hands lightly on the koto, strumming a passionate, rapid tune, at the same time singing harmoniously in high pitch. The shamisen players closed their eyes to play with her – and again, it was as if these musicians’ hearts and minds were one. I wondered just how much these kabuki actors had to practice to be able to read each other like that.

The shamisen was also thoroughly amazing, but what struck me most was the playing of the kokyu. I did not know such an instrument existed – it was similar to a violin, but played on Acoya’s lap. She moved her bow back and forth, sometimes slowly, other times very quickly, producing emotional notes. Even as she moved her hand so rapidly that the bow was a blur, her face remained calm and composed, as if this amazing playing was just a walk in the park. Not once did she stray from her graceful stature. When her tune was over, the whole theater rang in thunderous applause.

The two Lords then decide that Acoya is telling the truth and let her go, so she puts on her peacock cover kimono and slowly glides out again…

Acoya is played by a sixty year old Kabuki actor named Tamasaburo. Tamasaburo grew up the youngest child in a family that had nothing to do with the Kabuki world. As a child, he was frail and sickly, but when he was brought to see his first Kabuki play, he fell in love. Thus, he began to take lessons and devoted his whole life to this ancient Japanese traditional theater. Though he was told again and again that he was too tall to play a woman’s role, he bent his knees and arched his back in order to be the right height. This, of course, is not good for the body, so every night after dancing on the Kabuki stage, he goes right home and has a full body massage done before bed. Tamasaburo is the only Kabuki actor presently alive that is able to play a character like Acoya. Acoya is a very difficult character to play, since it is necessary for her to masterfully play three different instruments, and to get across the passion she feels for her lover through the songs.

While the curtain closed and every single person in the audience rose to give a standing ovation, I remembered the scene where when the evil Lord suggested torture goods to be used on Acoya, and Acoya rose to lie down and tilt her back onto the stairs before the Lords to proclaim that they may do what they wanted with her body, but she was innocent. That courage – that passion – that is held inside her white, pure, innocent, composed face when she pronounced herself not guilty seemed to speak for the underlying strength of Japanese women – and made me immensely proud.

Passionate Playing
Scene of Strength

Three Sisters

“No, Sora-chan,” an elderly, thin woman in a traditional kimono scolds as I walk into the kitchen, “You must take off your coat at the door, that is the Japanese way.” I bow my head and apologise frantically as I rush to take off my coat, gloves and scarf – my fighting weapons against the dry, piercing Tokyo winter air.

Akiko-san and Saki-chan, together with the three elderly sisters, Akiko-san’s koto teachers, who share the cozy apartment fill the room with energetic jibber-babber as I do so. When I am finished, the youngest of the three, Takemata-sensei, smiles before pronouncing, “Before we sit down, let us all exchange proper salutations.” Then a flurry of “Akemashite-omedetou” ( “Happy New Year”)s fill the air and we bow many times before finally sitting down at the table.

Across from me, the middle sister who scolded me earlier, Inagaki-sensei, sits quietly and offers a few words here and there as Takemata-sensei begins to bring out gorgeous china, explaining the importance of each one in quite a fast pace. Across the table to my right, the oldest of the three, Kikuchi-sensei, smiles kindly and quietly at me.

All three have been playing the koto – an ancient Japanese large, stringed instrument that is played sitting down – from the early years of grade school. When World War II started and life became hard, they still continued their lessons and presently still play at various events, while also saving time to give daily lessons to people like Akiko-san.

The three sisters are part of a big family of seven and grew up in the heart of Tokyo during the War. One younger sister passed away, but their brother lives close by. When asked why they started to play the koto at such a young age, Inagaki-sensei replies that one of her friends was taking traditional Japanese singing lessons and she wanted to do something as well. After she saw the koto being played at a performance, she fell in love with the sound and asked her mother if she could take lessons. “My mother said, ‘Starting lessons is easy, but continuing to go is difficult. If you have the confidence and will that you will continue the lessons, then you may.’ Because I agreed to this, I could not quit, even if I wanted to. I never missed a lesson.”

While Inagaki-sensei wholeheartedly admits she did not like studying at school or homework, her elder sister, Kikuchi-sensei was the opposite case. Kikuchi-sensei had the best grades in her class and in her family and especially loved learning mathematics. Her eyes grew sad as she recounted how when the war started, schools were not able to teach English anymore. Instead, she and her siblings were forced to quit going to school and instead put into war-supporting volunteer work. At this point, the three sisters were in their early teens.

Inagaki-sensei worked in an airplane factory far from her home and remembers how difficult it was to keep going. “I had to run to the train station every day, which was a great length and then work for hours in the factory. It became so hard on my body – I was still so young – that I began to throw up blood, so much that the person in charge at the factory told me that I did not have to come anymore.” But her father soon moved the family closer the factory, so she was able to continue her job. Even though her family was considerably well-off before the war, still it was difficult to eat. Her father, who was the eldest in his family, had the great duty to support both his father’s family and his own family. Even though he dreamed of going to a School of Art, since he was very artistic, he gave this up to work for these two families and instead filled his artistic craving with his hobbies. He wrote daily summaries, complete with beautiful drawings, during the War.

As described by the three sisters, their father was very strict, but kind as well. They were always expected to bow respectfully to their father when he arrived home. Their mother was also strict, but based on the gorgeous black and white pictures of her, she was quite beautiful.

Before the War, Inagaki-sensei describes their childhood as the best of times. She would go to school, come home and complete her koto lesson, then do her homework. At seven o’clock, the whole family would come sit together in the dining room to eat dinner. “Everyone was often very busy in our house, so I always loved how we all came together to eat at night,” Inagaki-sensei explains. Her father’s friends would also often come over to talk after dinner.

Inagaki-sensei especially loved playing karuta – a type of Japanese card game where half of a traditional poem is read out loud and the players compete to find and slap the card that says the rest of the poem. From their early years, the children all loved to watch the adults play and gradually began to memorize the poems. As they grew older, their favorite pastime became playing karuta with their parents reading the poems out loud. Yet they got so good at the game that when opportunities to play the card game came up at their friends’ house, according to Takemata-sensei, “since we always won, it was not fun anymore.”

But those days of childhood happiness, when they enjoyed being quite well off, stopped abruptly with the start of World War II. Lights had to be turned completely off at night in order to avoid being targeted for the American bombing planes. At the factories that they worked day in and day out at, bombings were common and death was always a possibility. During one bombing, their house was burned to the ground and the family lost everything.

“But when all the lights were turned off at night during the War, I still played my koto,” Inagaki-sensei says proudly. “We lost everything because of the War and we had to go through painful experiences, but because of that, we gained compassion. If the War had not happened, we would have grown up in our riches and would have never known how it feels to have nothing, to be hungry. So I believe it was a good thing.”

Japan changed drastically after the War. When Americans came into Tokyo, everyone was fearful that they would hurt the Japanese citizens. But thankfully, nothing happened to them or their friends and family. But the Americans did one thing that the sisters cannot forgive. They took away a class at school that taught proper Japanese manners. They had grown up with the knowledge that one must always respect their elders, the proper way to bow, to exchange greetings. But because that way of thinking was forced away after the War, today’s Japanese youth do not know all of these manners.

“My father thought that the Americans would come and take everything away from us after the War. That’s why he taught us that we needed to save the Japanese culture,” explains Inagaki-sensei. “That’s why I play the koto. That’s why I teach how to play the koto. I want the Japanese culture to stay alive through the generations…

…I believe that is my job.”

When we finally leave, after a delicious meal of ozoni soup and osetchi-ryori, I start to put my coat on again in the kitchen, forgetting my previous mistake. “No, Sora-chan…” Inagaki-sensei starts. I bow and apologize again, but this time I feel different, happier. I take off my coat and look up at the creased, good-natured faces of the three sisters…and smile, showing my deep respect.


The Lonely Skater

I dream of Daddy’s quiet murmur

of the soft burble of Mommy’s laugh

until I wake early for departure and get

cozy in the car as I drift off, again

to sleep…

Images drift in and out of my mind and I see

Daddy at the steering wheel

his fingers tapping gently to

reggae beats on the radio

Mommy offers him more bites of a riceball

and it’s cozy warm in the backseat

sharing leg space with a sleeping Kazami

Asa in front, sleeping face close enough to

reach out and touch – touch –

…Eyes open to bright sunlight

snow-capped Mt Fuji outside my car window

we head into an amusement park, passing a gigantic Ferris wheel

and haunted house

stopping to gape up at the screaming faces of

riders turned upside down and

head to the outdoor ice rink

…and after I slide around and around

breathing in fresh country air, cheeks pink from cold

I stop to rest, sit down to breathe

watch little boys in puffy outfits

fall, get up and fall again

little girls grab tight to their father’s hand

listen to the laughter, see the smiles

and suddenly –

I see Kazami’s puff of curly hair

zipping off into the distance

I don’t think – just jump up to follow that head

but he’s gone – disappeared into the clouds of Mt Fuji

I sit and stare out

and wish with all my heart that Daddy were here

that I could look up now and see them laughing

urging me to skate with them –

and Asa would be around the corner, quiet and solemn

saying he was going to go indoors for a bit, to warm up

and Kazami – he would be that zip, that puff of hair

overjoyed to skate and full of energy…

and I wished then, while tears welled up

and pinched at my throat –

that I could bury myself

in their warmth and just let go…

let the tears of stress, joy, pain, fear

escape –

and hear them tell me

it was going to be okay

I need not worry –

I look up again, search for that bob of curly hair

but he’s gone – he never was

So I lift myself up again

as the tickle at my throat disappears

and regain my smile, my laugh

my toughness, strength and power

and slide off as I watch

Mt Fuji drape herself with a blanket of clouds

to disappear for a while…