On Sunday morning we left Tokyo. We took a bullet train, the Shinkansen, which took under 4 hours and included several stops. The train was comfortable, smooth, fast and simple to navigate. I had a little snack of strawberries wrapped in rice and settled in.
I was thrilled to learn my family in Aomori was big – I was one of nine people in the house. Parents, grandparents, three children and an Auntie comprised my home away from home.
Of course, my days were spent traveling the countryside visiting schools and being with my students, but my afternoons and evenings were spent being spoiled rotten as a member of a loving family. They cooked me meals abundant in fresh flavors, textures, colors and nutrition, gave me a room of my own, provided clean towels and laundry service daily, and made me an honored guest. Hitomi (my age, mom of 3), even took me to the hot springs, an experience that was immeasurably uncomfortable (since it’s done naked), so, different from anything I’d experienced in a public setting. But I’d likely not hesitate to do it again now, because I trusted her, and she treated me respectfully, and it didn’t kill me.
Hitomi and her husband spoke English, a bit, but the amount didn’t matter. This surprises people, but it’s true. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with body language, photographs, simple nouns, and facial expressions. When everyone is willing to try, and frustration met with smiles, it all works out. I only tried to use my translator app once, and it was too formal and proper. We still laugh about it. That morning, I used it to say something like “Dearest Ayuka, my sincerest hope is that your school day is full of learned stylings and that your brain cells expand exponentially” when I had meant to say “have a great day at school!”
This is how it began – with homemade welcome signs and small gifts of warmth and love.
Ayuka, age 8. Emiri, age 4.
Hinano, age 11.
Our house was large, with 5 bedrooms and, separately, an entire room for worship. In Japan, laundry rooms are connected to bath and shower space on the first floor, while toilets occupy completely other small rooms (in our house one on the first, and one on the second floor.) Kitchens are small – ours had a galley kitchen and closet for pantry space. In the evenings, after I would go to bed (sadly, around 8pm) the whole family would gather to play games and laugh and chat. It was one of the best parts of the day, I think because it reminded me of home.
Ka-San, the grandmother, in front of her house.
The Buddhist shrine in our house.
The Shinto shrine in our house – upper part.
The Shinto shrine in our house. Lower part.
The honored ancestors, in the room of worship.
I was allowed to photograph this room and in fact, my family took great pride in showing it to me, and on several days, encouraged me to light incense on my own. In Japan, there are no distinctive rules about following or being loyal to only one religion. Most people, I was told, are any combination of Buddhist, Shinto and Christian – and mixing and matching as you see fit is encouraged and not questioned. How refreshing.
Traditional dress, with Hitomi and Ayuka at the cherry blossom festival.
One of my favorite family scenes happened in the car, near the end of the trip, on our final Saturday morning. Hitomi, Ayuka (age 8) and I were headed to the Sakura (cherry blossom) Festival together. The two of them were chatting away, and I was silent, having reached full capacity on small talk in the car a couple mornings earlier. I was wondering to myself what they were chatting about. Could it be my silence? Were they worried I wasn’t enjoying myself? Was Hitomi frustrated with me? Was Ayuka wanting me gone so her older sister could get out of her room and go back to her own?
Hitomi giggled, and when I expressed interest, she said, “Oh Ayuka was saying how badly she wants to be a Disney princess. But she was just telling me that she doesn’t think she can do it because it’s just so, so hard!” And we laughed together about how sweet that was.
Here, I will share that part of this exchange program with our Japanese friends is that a group of them travel to Camden every January. Each student who comes is placed in a homestay with a student their own age, gender, and who has similar interests. They stay about a week. At the end of this exchange, students struggle to say goodbye. Traditionally and historically, it has been such an emotionally tumultuous parting that we have begun scheduling the goodbye on a weekend morning so as not to disrupt our school day.
And I never understood it. Why on earth would people you’ve known a week leave such an indelible mark upon your heart?
And now I understand.
There is something so intimate about sharing a home, sharing your routines, your most treasured possessions, indeed, sharing the people you love most – with a stranger. You see each other in your pajamas with sleepy seeds in your eyes. And this type of connection is remarkably deep, however brief.
When I think of my Japanese family now my heart aches a little. It’s possible I will never see them again. It’s possible that the week we spent is all we’ll ever get – and it reminds me to be grateful for experiences, and to put myself out there fully when they arise.
It reminds me to keep traveling. May my brain cells expand exponentially.