Adventure 5: Homestay – the Tateshita Family

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.

Yum.

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.

Shibuya!

We purposefully had about half a plan that Sunday in Tokyo. We’d arrived on Friday night, late, spent Saturday on a guided tour, and Sunday, had only to ensure we kept the gang fed and were on time for a ninja experience. It’s my favorite way to travel. A passport in hand, and no stringent plan? Yes, please.

We decided to take a 20 minute walk to the popular Meiji Shrine in Shibuya – the section of the city with the best name for yelling. The spacious garden and forest acres were instantly calming, and the grandiose arches and buildings well inside the grounds, welcoming.

The gang learned the etiquette of this ritual quickly and used it when appropriate to clean their hands before entering a shrine throughout our trip.

The kids prepared to go inside (see above), and some decided to offer prayers (none of which are pictured here – these belong to strangers) to kami, the Shinto gods. I counted nine different languages before I stopped reading. They’re out there for all to read, but I actually felt it was like looking directly inside a person’s heart, if you want to know the truth. Sometimes I even turned them around so others couldn’t read them either.

Gosh, I hope that didn’t get me into trouble with the other side. I really should learn to leave things alone!

These are just from this one morning. They are collected for a year before burning.

Of equal importance, these.

Millions of people every year leave prayers written in black ink along the four walls of a structure outside the largest shrine on the property. These are procured in hundreds of shrines all over the city. On January 1st each year, these wooden offerings are burned and all the prayers released to the gods together, as one. I truly wish I could be there for that. Maybe someday.

We finished our writing and turned to go just as a wedding was promenading through the square. Everyone there turned and raised their cameras. Turns out, these were members of the royal family!

I. KNOW. What luck!

That, my friends, is the kind of thing that happens when you wander rather than plan down to the most minute detail. It was stunning. Patrick whispered to me, “these people are very important! Oooh, she is loving all eyes on her!”

That pop of red! It’s like a National Geographic photograph just waiting to be taken. But not by me. Because I have zero eye for detail.

And she did. This couple was clearly the center of the universe on this day. Which reminds me, interesting fact: those clog/flipflop things the ladies wear. They are always too short for the woman’s foot. For the love of all that is holy, why? Is it to slow her down so she can’t change her mind and run (not that this bride gave any indication)? It does make one wonder. I asked four different Japanese people this question and none of them knew the answer. Curious.

Next, the gang went for a ninja experience. I have no pictures because I was back at Tokyo Station getting a refund on a set of JR Rail Tickets we didn’t need. I have no pictures of that because I have blocked it completely from memory.

Then, though, came dinner. And it was ramen noodles. And they were nothing like the .29 noodles we buy at Hannaford. Enjoy these absolutely not National Geographic worthy pics. Feel free to drool a little.

I can’t remember what this is, but I know it was delicious.

Patrick’s was also divine.


We didn’t plan to have Ramen for dinner. There were lots of things we didn’t plan for that day. But every one of those things we discovered or serendipitously stumbled on were worth the freedom of a day lacking an itinerary. I loved it. And I’d do it again tomorrow. 


Adventure 3: A Guided Tour

I felt refreshed, that first day in Tokyo, after four hours of sleep. Fine, I only wish I’d felt refreshed. Yes, I can hear you laughing, friends, but my infatuation with sleep was nowhere to be found.

Maybe not refreshed. But geared up and psyched out of my mind to BE IN JAPAN!? You better believe it. Sleep schmeep. With a coffee and a custard bun in my belly, we were off and running.

First stop on our guided tour: Tokyo Tower. It’s beacon red, while everything else in the city is gray. See? It’s red and very towery. 

In just 30 minutes, we rode up a crowded elevator, took in a 360 degree of the city, rode back down and boarded the tour bus again, all that was needed to get a feel for Tokyo Tower. That, and paying triple for key rings, stickers and the like. As you do. Oh, the kids stood on a glass-bottomed piece of floor and looked down. That was pretty wonky.

Do you want to know the craziest part of this photograph? See those sandals on the bottom right? They belong to one of my students, waiting her turn to get on the glass. Since downloading these photographs onto this computer, advertisements for those EXACT sandals appear randomly beside my newsfeed. Terrifying? Coincidence? Your guess is as good as mine.

P.S. They are lovely, but I do not want the sandals, so stop reminding me they exist, internet.

Second stop: a garden, deep in the heart of Tokyo. The moment we stepped in, it was zen. It’s in the middle of one of the largest, most sprawling cities on earth, but you’d never know it. It felt like an oasis. Several weddings were being photographed while we explored the koi pond, Shinto shrine, and tea ceremony building. It was gorgeous.

Zen peace.

The tea ceremony we witnessed was likewise peaceful and serene. The presenter was delicate in her manner; graceful and poised. We learned that serving tea correctly takes a lot of time to learn, and hours of practice, to perfect. She made it look simple. The matcha tea was strong, and gave a good kick for the next leg of our day: lunch.

We were welcomed to a Japanese barbeque, cooked for us on our very own hibachis in the center of tables – a delightful treat. Beef and pork, onions, green peppers, garlic, and mushrooms were cooked to perfection and served to us, miraculously, every time we’d barely cleared our plates. A very satisfying meal, and, I must say, I felt much better about the kids having plenty of real, delicious food in their bellies. We all felt fantastic. Save for the tiredness, which threatened to pull us under every time we sat still for more than two minutes.

After lunch, we continued our guided tour of the city. Though it was cold and a little rainy, we boarded a shuttle boat and got to see bits of Tokyo from the water.

A view from my seat toward the center of the boat.

And my view looking the other direction! They’re SO happy. What joy.

After the boat? Shopping. These pictures give you a feel for the crowds, the blue sky, the towering shrine above the street, and the beauty of our surroundings. Kids bought lots of gifts and memorabilia here.


Back to the bus we went. We had one more stop on this guided tour. We went to the financial district of Tokyo, from which we could see part of the Imperial Palace. And a mote. But if I understood our guide correctly, it was not actually the palace, and not a moat used as a moat, anymore. Derg. So, no pictures from you, weird stop on our guided tour!

Ah. Then the tour was over. Our bus pulled back into the bus terminal and we departed. I was still organizing my backpack when a young red-headed man named Patrick Carland joined us, reached out and took a thousand pounds of weight off our shoulders. Before Patrick, I was a stranger in a strange land and leading the blind while blind. After Patrick, I was a participant on one of the best trips of my life. (Patrick made the trek down from Aomori, the town to which we would be traveling in another day or two. He speaks fluent Japanese and was an invaluable addition to our journey.)

Patrick arrived and changed the already stunning world we were exploring, when, in a booming voice he bellowed “Welcome! Welcome, my delicious little pieces of sushi wrapped in seaweed! Let’s go get some dinner!” And we did. 

Not all heroes wear capes.