Adventure #7: As Luck Would Have It

My bad luck started in a cemetery – a very old one, in which emperors from centuries ago are buried. I’m one of those weirdos who believe cemeteries to be beautiful, reverent spaces (though a useless waste of land space) and typically, I seek them out when in foreign places, but this one gave me a feeling of unwelcome, as if I had absolutely no business being there. Not a bird chirping. Tall trees standing at attention in utter silence. A ray of sunshine, muted, peeking through.

Just one person is enshrined in this building, and more individuals in several like it in a row to the left.

These ancient tombs lay like scrolls I wanted to be begged to unroll and read. Instead, they whispered “go away”. So I did.

This ominous feeling followed me to our next stop, a pagoda and shrine at which I bought a tiny little rolled up piece of paper that housed my life fortune. Why did I do this? Because I’m an optimist and a buoyant believer in creating one’s own luck,and hadn’t planned to put stock in what it said, thank you very much.

Said pagoda.

But dammit. My fortune declared me quite unlucky indeed: a #3 (not as bad as a #1 but nowhere near a #10.) A three? Really, Fate? A three. I’ve been luckier than a three standing in the pouring rain/freezing sleet at a train station in Korea when I found a beautiful pair of leather gloves on the ground which were: you guessed it. Just my size. So THERE. #3 my butt.

Still. I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t even allow Patrick to read the fortune part. Instead, I attempted to leave it hanging on a string outside the shrine, as one does in Japan when one, in essence, puts a palm in the face of Fate and won’t hear another word. That’s right. Fate turns we unlucky people into teenagers.

You’re supposed to unroll the fortune, gently tie it in a loose little knot and leave it — creating time for Fate to reconsider. But when I went to gently tie my little paper in a tiny little knot, it tiny little ripped. Like the space/time continuum itself. Again, dammit. Now I knew Fate would not reconsider. Fate was to hold me to my #3.

Which seems silly, doesn’t it?

But in Japan, luck is a big deal. There are six ways to say “luck” for crying out loud. When I returned to my host family that evening, they had already heard about my slip of paper. WHAT I’M SAYING IS: this news preceded me. How, I didn’t know. But rumor had it, I was, big inhale, unlucky.

Only one person in my family thought it funny, rather than a curse. At first I felt relieved, but then he was the one who suggested I go to a shrine the following day to leave an offering and pray for a change in my fate! In fact, he insisted on it, though he wouldn’t be the one with time to take me. What made me nod my head and oblige? I have no idea. Nothing unlucky had happened, unless you count receiving the #3 to be the thing.

But off we went, at 7am, after the hot springs and before the Sakura Festival. Hitomi drove a total of 45 minutes just so I could have a chance to reverse my #3. I took pictures of this outing, but deleted them later, as they were blurry and dark and I think Fate put His finger over the lens.

Anyway. I brought water as an offering, took my shoes off, washed my hands properly, and, at this point, genuinely prayed for my luck to return as I would be boarding a flying piece of metal in less than 24 hours and, whatever, I’d take all the luck I could get.

That night, after a lovely goodbye banquet at city hall, Ka-san and Hitomi led me into the worship room in their home and closed the door. This had not happened before, I noted, this closed door thing. They silently lit incense, kneeled before each of the Buddhist and Shinto shrines, and murmured prayers. Then it was my turn. They handed me matches, encouraged me to light my own incense, and pointed to the sand in which to place it. “For your luck,” Hitomi said, seriously. Then I understood. So I lit the incense and matched her somber tone. “For my luck,” I repeated.

This visit to the public shrine and this lighting of incense at the private shrines must have worked. I’ve had exactly zero bad luck since.

Knock on wood.





Adventure #6: Schools In and Around Aomori

Each little textured piece of these red and white faces is an individually folded origami crane or flower.

If you want to get to know a foreign place, I recommend you visit its schools, especially if they know you’re coming, and make you lunch!

I’m kidding actually. Cafeteria food is the same quality all over the world, it seems.

We visited four schools on our journey; two elementary schools and two middle schools, each unique and special, as schools are. At each one, we played a video we had made of our ten student travelers, introducing themselves in English and Japanese, and showing a video or photos of an activity they love and are involved in, such as swim team and skateboarding. They then performed a dance choreographed by one my middle schoolers. (Thanks, Kate! You rock!!) In turn, students at these host schools presented cultural dances, songs and the like. My favorite was two fierce young ladies showing their amazing karate skills. Here’s one: 

On average, we spent three hours or so doing activities with the student body and having a meal together. And in one school, we cleaned hallways and classrooms – as students in Japan do daily.

This is what Ava thinks of having to clean.

Just joking! She was thrilled to do anything and everything asked of her.

One of the activities we took part in was traditional painting of neputa floats (we practiced on paper). Afterwards, and because it was pouring rain outside, students created an indoor parade of miniature neputa floats made by the student body. They banged on large drums in a traditional rhythm and the crowd yelled “Yah, yah, doh!” as they do in Aomori at the annual neputa float parade. People from other areas of northern Japan have their own, different chant they yell.

They looked like they were done by pros!

Other activities included origami, taking part in after-school activities such as track and performance dancing, and playing the Japanese version of rock, paper, scissors whereby if you win a round, the loser joins your “team”, then faces the next person as an entourage forms behind you — until YOU lose, and you join the winner’s entourage. Eventually there is one winner, who gets a nice round of applause as a prize.

We visited several classrooms to see what classes are like. The students in the upper grades respectfully ignored our presence, but middle schoolers (like the above) were bubbly, friendly, and … probably in a bit of trouble after we left.

Saying goodbye was the hardest part of visiting each school. Here are elementary students waving American and Japanese flags at and out their windows as we drove away in the rain.

I’m not crying, you’re crying!


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.


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.