I want to take an opportunity to write a few thoughts and revelations from my recent trip to Japan. 11 years ago I moved to a rural area in Kagoshima Prefecture of southern Japan. I met incredible people, many of whom are some of my closest friends today despite the distance that separates most of us. Little did I know 11 years ago that I’d end up spending nearly half a decade in the country of the rising sun. It had been almost 7 years since I had been back to Japan – and it was a true treat to my nostalgic senses in every way imaginable.
I learnt a lot about myself living in Japan. To be honest, a few months after I had moved there in 2002, I was considering to leave. Cultural barriers, a sense of certain small injustices in everyday life, frustration about infinite rules that surrounded my existence… I remember specifically making the decision to stay – and everything changed for the better from then on. I learnt Japanese, I kept my perma-smile on for five years, and I mastered the art of tatemae/honne – or rather how to differentiate what is expressed on the outside in contrast to what is felt on the inside. I am often told by people that Japanese tend to be rather cold and difficult to become real friends with. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. My friends in Japan are some of my dearest and seeing them again was the ongoing highlight of my time there.
But… I can’t start this off without mentioning the fact that I also got to transport into another part of my life en route to Japan. Connecting in Kuala Lumpur, I had about 5 hours to race from the airport to the city and meet up with my former colleagues from an organisation I worked at in 2008. I actually hadn’t expected many to be able to join, but was really moved when I saw six of my old friends there to have a quick chat and scoff down a curry mee with me. It was wonderful to hear them speaking that fast crazy Malaysian English and talking the taboo subjects that we always seem to get into (thanks for initiating Lai Lai!) I wish I had been able to spare more time to hit some karaoke and sing Chris Brown, Rihanna, Estelle, and all the others we used to belt out hard in 2008!
Somewhat of a journey later, I was in Japan. Spending a week at my dear friends Tomiko and Hiroya’s house was like a true holiday. We spent our days boating, fishing, and swimming in the sea, daily foodie delights provided by chef Tomiko, long afternoons in the garden watching Sakurajima volcano angrily spewing her ash, and visits to the hot springs to wash off 7 years of dirt collected since my last Japanese bath visit. Tomiko and Hiroya were incredible hosts as always. I don’t know how many nights of my life I’ve spent in their beautiful hilltop house, but sprawling out on the tatami on top of my futon there always gives me a strong familiar sense of being at home. I had a chance to also see my dear friend Nacha quite a bit as we drove around Kagoshima from one adventure to the next reliving our 20s from the perspective of our 30s! The smell of the tea fields, the feeling of sulphuric hot spring water, the sounds of animated voices in pharmacies – it was all a delight to my senses.
One of the best memories I have is walking with Nacha in the night under the stars in Chiran, the small town I used to live in. Listening to the crickets, seeing the massive amount of bright stars, and walking down those perfect little windy roads truly represents the larger memory of the life I once had there. I also had a chance to meet with my Chiran friends at my favourite very local bar where we used to meet a lot back in the day. We haven’t changed too much over the years. I also met with Mr. Osako, a man I used to teach with and had many nights out drinking and gossiping about work. He surprised me with a school scrap book from the year I was there. What a treasure to look back and remember everyone like it was another lifetime ago.
Getting to Tokyo reminded me of the feeling from going to super rural to super city. Suddenly battling people, trains, directions… but despite the incredible population, Tokyo never feels overwhelming. Everything is orderly and moves at a fast pace. Luckily I had two amazing friends to welcome me and re-live our days on the small southern island of Amami Oshima. Dave and Yuki were my neighbours for a year on the island and I was so happy to have a chance to spend a night at theirs after so many years. Hitting Tokyo with 87 year young Kosuke was a blast. Although I usually have the privilege of seeing her twice a year, it’s rare we get to meet in Japan. I also got to see two very wonderful friends of mine as well, Kyoko and AJ. We talked a lot about old memories and why Japan is made for me – hence why I should be living there someday again soon. And of course Kosuke and I played for a few days in the city with visits to the new attractions and a full day at the spa where I spent 10 hours bathing in complete bliss. It’s always a revelation to remember that your travels and your experiences are largely based on the people you spend your time with. And your “homes” are often where these people congregate!
I felt that I had come back home to Japan from the moment I arrived. No time had passed and everything felt as natural as always. The ultra modern convenience of the first world doesn’t seem to showcase itself more than in Japan. Sometimes I felt like it’s a little too easy for me at this point in my life. I am pretty sure I’ll go back to Japan to live one day. But I can’t deny that I was also happy to get back to my new slightly messier home in Phnom Penh. In the end it’s all about the people you meet and the relationships you make.
Life is so mysterious!