Roses in the Bath, Horse Mackerel and Friendship in Izu
Shortly before Valentine's Day, I was surprised to be approached by Mr. Itou. Mr. Itou is an extremely genki (healthy and energetic) math teacher who organizes the social events for the first year teacher's room. His English ability is limited, but what he lacks in vocabulary he more than makes up for in determination and enthusiasm. He handed me an "Anketo" (questionnaire) and explained haltingly that we were voting on the destination for our first year teacher's trip. Pleased to be invited, I picked Izu and returned the form to Mr. Itou later that week. Izu is a popular resort area located to the south-west of Tokyo- famous for hot springs and flowering trees (plum and cherry). I looked forward to the outing, and considered its price of 3 man (about $300) well worth the cultural experience of vacationing with my Japanese co-workers. That price covered train transportation to our destination, one night in a hotel, and a full multiple course dinner and breakfast. However, when I learned that my favorite lady English teacher wouldn't be coming, I was filled with trepidation. I wondered if I would be the orphan child no one wanted to talk to, thanks to my limited conversational abilities in Japanese and the group's shyness in speaking English.
So, after a teaching trip to Chiba High School on Friday, I went home, packed some clothing and my Japanese dictionary, and got on the train for Tokyo. I managed to find the right platform by running into Mr. Kurabe, a distinguished sociology teacher. He led me to the other teachers, and we waited for our train, the "Superview" Express to Izu. It pulled up and I was amazed- it was a gorgeous train with absolutely enormous glass windows and curtains, like a living room on rails. I stood there with Ms. Higurashi, the Japanese language teacher, and Ms. Sutou, the Japanese calligraphy teacher. The men stood around together, joking and talking about the upcoming trip. Mr. Itou suddenly asked what I liked to drink, juice or beer. It was only 3pm and I can't drink beer anyway, so I said juice. He sprinted off to a train kiosk and came back with an enormous plastic bag full of beer and presumably juice. We all looked at each other and smiled.
It was finally time to get on the train, so we filed on dutifully. All around us other groups and couples were settling in for their own private adventures. We came to our seats and since we took up two whole rows, we were able to turn around the front two rows to make two cozy seating areas facing each other. Me, Ms. Higurashi, Mr. Kurabe and Ms. Sutou made a cozy party. Across the aisle Mr. Itou, Mr. Ooki, Mr. Torihata (an English teacher), and Mr. Kobayashi (also an English teacher) formed another party. Ms. Higurashi miraculously produced a slim electronic dictionary just as I was pulling out my heavy leather bound dictionary. It turned out that it took too much time to painstakingly look up words that I didn't know in conversation, but at crucial moments Ms. Higurashi would dive into her electronic dictionary and pull out a few English words so I could follow along. Everyone had brought little snacks- some of the tastiest were roasted chestnuts, nuts, and almond chocolates. On the left side, we drank orange juice while watching the stack of empty Asahi beer cans grow on the right side of the compartment. Mr. Itou could throw them back at an amazing rate! The train sped along, and the scenery gradually began to include some lovely flowering trees- pink camillas and cream and pink ume (plum) at the stations gave us something to look at and admire. Then we turned around a corner and were faced with the breathtaking view of the ocean and beaches beside us. Before too long, we found ourselves pulling into the station at Itou.
We piled out and fought our way through the station out to where porters and van guides stood, holding banners with the names of hotels. We looked for our van, and in a minute it pulled up, a purple bus with a matching purple banner. We clambered in and I grabbed a seat to the left, in the front. Purple silk flowers decorated the roof and I was strangely reminded of Justin and my honeymoon limousine. Our bus straggled through the tourist traffic to the hotel, and we piled out again. We were met by women in yukata bowing and welcoming us energetically. We were led past a strangely elegant European entranceway into an elegant sitting room/ tea café with large Victorian couches and ornately finished coffee tables.
Smiling yukata clad hostesses brought us a strangely spicy flower and chili and konbu seaweed beverage, in a basket filled with hot damp orange washcloths with a perfect tangerine orange rose. Glowing colored globes gave a strangely Christmas atmosphere to the waiting room. We sat and looked out the window at a walled river below. Steam from the onsen below us floated out from the lower floor. They took us ladies up to our rooms first, up an elevator to the third floor or so. We went down a hallway and stopped at a room with pressed flowers in glass above the door. Our guide opened it and we found 3 red geta (traditional Japanese clogs) waiting for us. We took off our shoes, slipped on the geta and went into our room.
Visit the Yuukitei Hotel website at: www.yuukitei.com
There was a large, low table with floor level Japanese style seats. Beautifully decorated boxes sat in three places at the table. We went in and took off our coats and sat down, peering at the welcoming snack. There were bonito (smoky fish flakes) covered walnuts, a little wrapped okashi (Japanese confection), and a little bar of chocolate, flavored with mountain berries. Soon there was a knock at the door, and a yukata clad lady came in and poured tea for us while explaining about the services offered by the hotel. My companions were interested in a special outdoor bath the hotel offered that was filled with fresh roses. It cost 1500 yen, a steep price for 45 minutes of private bathing. But, we found that it could be split between the three of us, as we were paying by the time, not per person. Our tea server left and they asked me if I would like to try the flower bath together.
"Sure," I said, and we got together our hotel yukata, along with thick yukata 'coat', and the purple hotel amenities bag. There were two colors of yukata, pink flowers or teal blue, with accompanying pink or teal coats. We all chose pink, and went down to the baths wearing our red geta clogs. We reserved our room, and were taken down with a key to the door. We went in. There was a small dressing/ vanity room with three baskets and a sink. Floral paintings adorned the walls. We looked through the sheer glass wall outside and could see the large bath with flowers. One small wall shower, at waist height, was against the wall outside. I hesitated, a little nervous at taking off my clothes in front of my co-workers. It was one thing being naked around other naked strangers, another thing being naked around people I knew and talked to every day. But, I stripped along with them. Ms. Higurashi was fastest, and she went outside and rinsed off at the faucet before hopping in the tub. Ms. Sutou and I shared the faucet, she filling the wooden bucket with hot water from the tap and dipping her small bath towel into the water to wash. I flicked the water in the bucket around like a bird before finally just using the shower.
They encouraged me to get into the bath, so I did. The flowers were the same waxy, perfect orange blossoms that had been in our washcloth basket at the reception. Unfortunately, they didn't have much scent, apparently sacrificing smell for the carefully engineered color. Ms. Sutou splashed away at the faucet, since there was really only room for two in the large tub unless you were all Very familiar with each other. I sat in the tub and enjoyed the atmosphere, chatting with the other two ladies. We traded places a few times so everyone had a good chance to enjoy the bath. Then we heard men's voices coming from the bath area next door. We were agog, trying to determine if it was the other male teachers, and giggled quietly like school children, wondering if we were going to hear any interesting gossip. Ms. Sutou and Ms. Higurashi went in, but since there was a little extra time I stayed in and stretched out in the tub. The water was hot and salty, and the night was pleasant. But at last, I had soaked in as much of the atmosphere as I could, and I got out. I put on my yukata and coat and stumbled out into the corridor with the other teachers. They went out and had some cold mugi-cha (barley tea). Ms. Higurashi and Ms. Sutou stopped at the omiyagi (souvenir) shop in the hotel lobby, looking at the various options. I admired the pretty confections and wished I could afford to buy something. We returned to our room and I drank the ice cold water waiting for us in a pitcher.
After a little conversation, it was time for dinner, so we padded down in our yukata and geta to the lower banquet room for our party. Little trays were set up for us with floor chairs, and the men were waiting already. Three spaces were available, and they jokingly had us 'Janken' to decide who got the best seats. Janken is the Japanese name for 'Rock Paper Scizzors"- which somehow has become the ultimate way to make decisions in a group situation in Japan. Anytime the students don't want the job of, say, emptying the trash in the room, they "janken" to decide, in an intricate dance of Japanese sounds and hand gestures that goes far beyond the elementary usage of rock, paper scissors in American grade schools. This game is wildly popular among all age groups, as far as I can tell. You are apparently never too old to giggle through a game of Janken in order to make an unpopular decision. I, being a pathetic novice at the whole janken thing, lost immediately, to my relief. The final placement was decided and we sat down.
I sat to the right of Mr. Itou, the genki 'captain' and cheerleader of the group. The meal was beautiful, with a sakura theme carried throughout. A candle heated dish steamed gently away on each of our plates, and small bites of flavor sat awaiting us, from pickled vegetables to gently crisped carrot flower chips. Squid, Tuna, and shrimp sashimi (raw fish) awaited us- I enjoyed everything except the squid. It was undeniably fresh, but raw squid takes five years to chew and only slowly dissipates in your mouth in milky bits- and I have decided, after much research, that I prefer it grilled. A cheerful server came in, offering us beverages and serving various courses and clearing away others. The men generally drank beer and sake, while I drank water, oolong tea, and white wine. Mr. Itou was very busy pouring beer and wine for everyone, as a good host. Ms. Sutou, to his left, was kept busy pouring beer for him, and once I even managed to pour for him, which startled but seemed to please him. A gorgeous tempura basket was brought out, which I couldn't eat- it had a battered orchid like flower in it. I was so impressed I wanted to take a picture of Mr. Itou's selection. At first he thought I was taking a picture of him and then played at being crushed when he realized I was just taking a picture of the food- so I snapped one of him too. I was served a special and lovely piece of gloppy gelatinous cover over a piece of white fish with a cherry blossom shaped garnish in lieu of the tempura. It tasted dreadful, but later Ms. Higurashi said the tempura wasn't that great anyway, so I didn't worry about it too much. My favorite dish was a large, red fish (kinmedai) salted and delicately prepared with simmered vegetables that was served to each of us in turn. It was amazingly fluffy and mild- truly delicious. Another delightful appetizer was another gelatinously topped serving with slices of renkon (lotus root) and daikon interspersed with smoked salmon in a creamy mayonnaise and sesame sauce. Delicious! One of the more disappointing courses came in a beautiful and ornate white ceramic case with purple flowers- it was a simmered pink daikon, shaped like a cherry blossom with a salmon product core. The daikon was about as tasty as an old sponge marinated in fishy compost liquid, so I discretely closed the lid and went on with the rest of the menu. The nice thing about a Japanese formal meal is that there are so many small courses that it doesn't really matter if you like everything. I was terribly full by the time dessert came. It was a charming selection of fresh orange sherbet and small delights, finished of with bancha tea.
We rose and ended up going to one of the men's rooms, which had a nice night view of a traditional ryokan and a neon sign. We sat around a low table and drank the available beverages from the small refrigerator bar- orange juice, beer. There were also snack nuts and crackers, though I wasn't hungry. Ms. Higurashi and I sat around the coffee table and looked through the hotel brochures together. The conversation continued around us and it turned out that Mr. Itou was keen to spend some time in the hotel lounge and maybe take a taxi to a "snack bar" later in the evening, and was trying to convince his more publicly stodgy male companions to accompany him. They jokingly tried to pass on responsibility to each other by deliberating who was the "sempai" (elder). A snack bar is an interesting kind of Japanese bar which is popular with Japanese men out for a night of feminine coddling- it generally comes with hostesses who at the very least chat companiably with the male guests and flatter them. Regulars may buy bottles of alcohol to keep at the bar, and will have their names written on them. Foreigners are often not 'irrashaimase' welcomed to these places, unless accompanied by a regular, and women don't tend to frequent them.
Finally tired of the masculine company, we ladies retired to our room to chat and gossip a bit (although I couldn't follow the majority of the discussion, they took the time to work out some of the topics in English so I could get the gist of it.) I made the mistake of mentioning that I had heard the home economics teacher at a high school I visit was nice and I opened up a can of controversy. It turned out Ms. Sutou had a long standing and bitter relationship with this woman at her previous school. The woman had teasingly said that Ms. Sutou was like a character in the popular Japanese comic Doraemon, and Ms. Sutou's feelings were bitterly hurt. She confided that she felt this teacher was a kind of Dinosaur dragon woman and very scary. This led to a less controversial conversation about Chinese Zodiac signs, which was pleasant and reasonably understandable. After more chatting, and a little television viewing, we decided to go down to the proper baths for some onsen relaxation.
We padded down in our yukatas. The baths were hopping, and so full that we couldn't find a wall shower to use. We wandered to the outdoor bath and splashed off a little before hopping in. It was pleasant, hot water, and there were trees and plants all around. At one point we heard a decidedly male voice raised in song coming from the building above us- and Ms. Sutou tried to decide if it sounded like Mr. Itou or not. Deciding it was, we went back in to find room at the wall, and washed off properly before getting into the water. There were two main pools in this room that fed into each other, and then the one outside. We bathed and enjoyed the hot water for a while, and then went out into the dressing room. I stood in front of the sinks and mirrors, splashing cool water on my face to cool down. There were sample lotions and soaps- I tried some kind of aloe lotion with gold flecks in it. I stood in front of the fan for a bit, and then got dressed and we all went back up to the room. We watched a little tv, trying to see how the weather would be. Today was rainy, and we were hoping for a nicer day when we went to see the cherry blossoms. It felt like a girl's slumber party or something, just one that happened to be all in Japanese. Then, we turned out the light and tried to sleep. The pillow was really interesting- it was a long rectangle with different components, so you could make it into your ideal pillow- you could choose the shape and whether you wanted feather or hard bean filling. Coincidentally it could be purchased from the hotel for 6000 yen. I didn't sleep too well because poor Ms. Sutou was suffering from a severe cold AND allergies, so she coughed all night. And, I am not that used to sleeping in a room with strangers either, so I didn't get much rest.
But, when they bounced up at 6:30 am, I bounced up too, and we all went to the onsen again. I tried really hard to turn on my Japanese skills, but I'm not very skilled even in English at that hour, so I felt like the language was being filtered through a layer of cotton in my brain. The hotel had switched the men's and women's section so now we could see what the men's section was like. It was even nicer than the women's. The indoor baths were somewhat similar but the pool outside had a lovely waterfall and atmospheric greenery all around. I sat outside with Ms. Sutou and she told me all about the surrounding trees- including one that's name conjured up images of snow in springtime- based no doubt on the resemblance of its soft white flowers to snow. It was very relaxed, but I got really hot- the water somehow seemed hotter today. Even with my periodic cooling dips with buckets of cool water, my skin was bright red when I got out. I stood in front of the fan, practically panting, and splashed my face over and over again with water.
Eventually we were all ready to go, and we went back to the room. I nibbled on yesterday's welcoming snack- the bonito walnuts were really delicious- sweet and smoky at the same time. The Japanese confection, an egg and sweet bean concoction, was not that tasty, so I left it after a bite. But, the incredibly small chocolate with the 'mountain berry' flavor was really good! It was eventually time for breakfast, and we padded out to the breakfast room. To my surprise, all of the men were there already except for Mr. Kurabe. There seemed to be some controversy behind Mr. Kurabe's disappearance- I thought perhaps he had partied too much last night and was recovering in bed, but that didn't seem in character. And Mr. Kobayashi was wearing a suit, which seemed strangely formal for a relaxed hotel breakfast. The rest of us were wearing our yukatas. Breakfast was almost tastier than the dinner- maybe because it was less concerned with an elegant appearance and more concerned with giving people a good meal to get them through the day. Aji no Himono, dried and preserved horse mackerel, was grilling on a flame before us, there was a fresh salad with my favorite strips of crunchy gobo (burdock root) in a mayonnaise sesame dressing. We had delicious miso soup with shellfish, nice hot and plain rice, and all kinds of other tasty and filling things. I couldn't eat half of it, though I enjoyed it all. The grilled Aji fish was quite tasty. Our meal closed with more bancha, and I only wished there had been coffee. Otherwise it was perfect.
I begged the teachers for a picture and we ended up having a group picture taken by the serving hostess. I also coerced Ms. Higurashi and Ms. Sutou into taking a picture with me because I wanted to remember their kindness to me, but later I thought the picture didn't really capture their personalities. Ms. Higurashi is slim, and elegant, and wears ballet shoes when she goes to the gymnasium. She's kind, and thoughtful, and has always done everything she can to make me feel comfortable. She works too hard, and always gives everyone snacks and chocolates, including me (after diligently checking for wheat in the ingredients). As I've gotten to know her, I've come to understand the rhythm of her personality, and appreciate her as a friend. Ms. Sutou is very different than Ms. Higurashi- she's louder, and full of energy and vigor. Ms. Sutou jumps into everything she does with both feet- gives out shoulder massages to her overtired co-workers and jokes heartily with everyone. She wears a crafty cat or dog apron every day- and sometimes her hair sticks out at the bottom like a cheerful exclamation point to her vivacious personality. They're very different, but we made an interesting team on this trip. So, after our meal and pictures, we went back to our room and packed up our things. We went down to the lobby and then the serious business of picking out omiyage began.
I felt a bit ashamed, because I had no money to contribute to omiyage and no money to buy anything, but I sat in the lobby on the beautiful overstuffed Victorian couches and watched the bags while the teachers jointly decided on their collective souvenir presents for their colleagues and official people back at the school. At one point Ms. Sutou came out and grabbed Ms. Higurashi and I found later that they'd gone in together on a funny ceramic cat cup for me. I was really touched and sad that I was not able to immediately reciprocate. At last, we were ready to go, and the beautifully aproned staff (now wearing elegant and crafty aprons made in the region rather than yukata) ushered us out to our bus. We got in and made our way to the train station. It turned out Mr. Kobayashi had to leave immediately on important family business, and so we waited around at the train station for him to settle his ticket exchanges etc. It felt like a strange kind of defection to me, but we all gaily waved at him as he went through the gates. We found coin lockers for our bags (mine in particular was god-awful heavy, thanks to my lugging around several dictionaries and other bad ideas) and then got on the train for the station where we'd spend 'free time' going to a museum.
I was incredibly dismayed to find out that the train would cost 640 yen, as I hadn't budgeted it and didn't have any money for extras. With the uncomfortable feeling that I wouldn't have money for lunch and would be dining on dry crackers I'd brought with me, I got on the train and tried not to worry. This rustic train turned out to only have one track, except for stations- and at one point we were stranded at a station for 30 minutes while two trains eventually went around us. A trip that was supposed to take 16 minutes instead took 45, but at last we arrived at our destination- a beautiful and full station bursting with two tiers of restaurants, shops, and activities. We walked through it and out to the other side, where a map showed us the best places for viewing Cherry trees. Two lines of them stretched out on either side of the parking lot- they were spectacular.
We walked forward and began what turned out to be quite a hike to our museum destination. We passed a lot of blooming cherry trees at the bottom there, but as we went up, the trees weren't blooming yet- apparently they bloom over a period of time. We passed a bizarre "dog city"- a zoo with impossibly picturesque model houses and pedigreed dogs lolling in the cement, gated yards in the back. People strolled by and gazed at the dogs, talking to them, and possibly (for an additional charge?) taking them for walks. One can really see the hunger people have for pets in the existence of these pet zoos- where people are charged from $15 to $25 dollars for the privilege of relaxing with tame animals. I always wonder about the dogs at night- if they get lonely, if they wouldn't be happier as someone's pets… what playing with guests who change every half hour would do to a dog year after year… what happens to them if they get sick, or lose their fur, or get old and unattractive. But somehow, it happens here and no one seems to question it. The men complained about their feet, and talked longingly of hiring a taxi. Thinking of my pinched wallet, I fervently hoped we wouldn't somehow decide to get one, and since the other women were pooh-poohing the men's complaints, it seemed like it would be all right. We passed a sweet little sakura themed omiyage shop and Ms. Sutou suddenly got very excited and suggested we go in- she'd spotted a sign advertising sakura ice cream! The ladies got special ice cream- Ms. Sutou got a kind of mountain berry ice cream which sounded lovely, and me and Ms. Higurashi got sakura ice cream. It turned out not to have the flower, but rather the leaf- and was very pleasant and sweet. The men got ama-zake, a hot rice and ginger beverage, or green tea, apparently a more manly choice than ice cream. We enjoyed our ice cream thoroughly and looked around the shop a little. They made their own cherry blossom confections right there and you could watch them through the window!
We moved on, and hiked a bit more until we got to the family museum. It turned out to be a small museum with the collective works of a famous artistic family that had once lived in Chiba Prefecture. Most significantly, were the works of the famous father, whose watercolors often focused on the theme of a glowing white horse surrounded by the beauty of green and blue nature. The museum itself was a small two story house, with a reception desk in the entrance. A family tree was displayed to the left, showing all the marriages and connections of this family. We wandered around the first floor. The left room held group paintings done collaboratively by the family, as well as some of the more famous examples of the main artist's work. We went up the narrow stairs, hung with prints for sale, and up into the top rooms, where there were examples of the wider scope of the artist's work. One of my favorite paintings was of a small mouse in front of a half of a kabocha pumpkin. I also liked a few studies of rabbits- a a gloriously swooping ink painting of a whale. The second room on the top floor had stuff in an entirely different style by subsequent generations of artists. One woman's work looked like black and white textured sketches you might find in any art show in the states. One man's work was made up of brilliantly textured mountain pieces that was the paint equivalent of bits of shiny metal melted and pasted together. Eventually everyone had their fill of viewing Japanese art, and we all wandered out.
The men's earlier mutterings about taxis became noticeably louder. They said, oh, Brenda, you're wearing high heels, wouldn't you like to take a taxi? Oh, no, no, I protested, I'm fine! Their grumbling became rumbling and then suddenly they were on a quest to find a taxi. The other ladies protested and professed their intentions to walk back (and possibly stop at that sakura themed omiyage shop). "Why don't you go in here?" the clueless men asked, pointing at a nearby omiyage shop, which positively screamed tourist trap, and not in a good way. "No, no, it's much too expensive. Why look, the sakura ice cream is a good 50 yen more expensive than at that other shop!" my determined friends said. There was more muttering and suddenly the women and men split abruptly. I scampered off with the women, and we began a pleasant (if somewhat lengthy) walk back to the station. Of course, we had to stop at the sakura omiyage shop, and Ms. Higurashi and Ms. Sutou picked out a few more things to take home as gifts or for themselves. We got back to the train station and I was feeling increasing anxiety. I really had very little money- at this point, only enough for the train back to our main station. I brought up my dilemma and suggested we go somewhere for lunch that accepted credit cards. Credit cards are not part of every day life in Japan, which is a country still firmly convinced that cash is the only way to go. Only really major department stores and groceries accept regular credit cards, and some have quite strict policies of only accepting a credit card from a given customer once. In that customer's lifetime. As a special favor, mind. (This wretched policy has filled us with impotent rage many times, but to no avail.) My co-workers assured me that they would take care of me, and glossed over the whole gauche credit card thing. We got on the train back to the station, and found ourselves back with no clear idea of where to go.
We walked towards the main tourist shopping area, past an advertising walk of death, with numerous cheerful and bored people handing out fliers. Our intrepid leader Mr. Itou took one and after reading it said, "Hey, let's go here!" They had sushi and bowls of rice topped with sashimi- it sounded good to me so we wound through the tourists neighborhood. It was full of picturesque little restaurants, some with a giant raccoon bear holding a ledger (a good luck statue something like the Maneki Neko, that is supposed to bring financial rewards to one's business) out in front. We passed a preserved fish shop, with metal trays holding little dried fishes out in the sun, covered with mesh netting. I took a picture for posterity and turned for one last look- to my delight, underneath the metal tray was a spoiled, sleek black cat chowing down on some kitty kibbles in a bowl. Of course! A fish shop would have to have a pet cat too!
We went into the cozy and wooden sushi shop and sat down at a large table against the wall. We all decided to order Chirashi (?), rice topped with an assortment of sashimi fish and seafood. I confused the waitress by ordering water- but soon we were all diving into our delicious rice dishes, accompanied by miso soup and green tea. It was delicious and refreshing. I'm not entirely crazy about raw shrimp, but I ate them, along with the tasty raw tuna and raw scallops (whose sweet, mild taste I've grown to like). After our meal the teachers had a little bit of shopping they wanted to do, so I followed them around and enjoyed the atmosphere. My clever co-workers scouted out the shopping areas and then returned to the especially enticing places, favoring those set a little away from the overpriced station area. The preserved fish shop was a big draw for both the women and the men. Even the big, genial Mr. Ooki (who faces no small amount of jokes about "large" things- his name meaning big and being unusually tall and athletic) was eager to visit the fish store. Ms. Sutou and Ms. Higurashi picked out a few local fishies- Aji no himono (Horse Mackerel, dried), being a popular local specialty and something we'd enjoyed grilled at breakfast time- and other, more mysterious things- to take home for an evening snack. Armed with little shopping bags full of an eclectic array of culinary delights, we went on to the station. Ms. Sutou popped into a station shop for some fresh wasabi paste, and then we were all gathering our bags from the coin lockers and getting ready for the train.
We got on the SuperView Express train to Tokyo. This time we didn't have the whole area to ourselves. I was sitting, facing the back of another seat, next to Mr. Ooki. I was a little sad to be separated from my newfound friends, Ms. Sutou and Ms. Higurashi, but I flipped through a magazine. Just then, there was a commotion from behind us and it turned out the ladies were re-arranging the seating so that Ms. Higurashi could sit next to me, with Ms. Sutou across the aisle. The entire trip I'd felt like an adopted little cousin or something, and I was touched by their thoughtfulness. The trip passed more quickly than I would have thought possible, as I chatted with Ms. Higurashi about married life, ceramics, Japanese art, and food. I was no longer certain what things we were saying were in Japanese, and what things were in English, because I'd gotten into the rhythm of our conversation- it didn't really matter what language we were using, because we would just try until the other person figured it out. I was exhausted from lack of sleep and overloaded from the unaccustomed intensity of trying to understand Japanese 24 hours a day, but I was content. Over the year Ms. Higurashi and I had sat next to each other and moved from "Good Mornings" to brief conversation about our weekends or days- I'd gradually adopted her as my Japanese mentor, since as a Japanese teacher she not only knew a lot but was also interested in the topic, and she'd begun to ask me, well, how do you say this in English… But now, I thought that I'd actually made a friend.
I've always been mildly irritated with JETs and other visiting English speakers who go on and on about making Japanese friends, like nationality is some kind of commodity making one person's friendship more valuable than another. Surely if you're friends, it shouldn't matter where you were born, or what your native language is. Personally I'd just like as many friends as possible. Over the past year and a half, I have made some connections with individuals in Japan, and not just with students, who are the most openly welcoming. It's taken time, but I've gotten to know a woman on my bus route, Shizuko, a young grandmother with a passion for quilting, gardening, and English. I've made friends with English teachers, who are the easiest to communicate with. But Ms. Higurashi was the first one to have the patience for my slow Japanese- to give me the chance to understand her Japanese, and to try out my faltering but sincere Japanese in turn. She made me feel at home, not only in our teacher's room, but on a trip far away from my school and during a time when I was afraid I might feel entirely friendless and alone. The conversations I've had with her have been like a gift, not only helping me know her, but helping me understand things around me. On this trip home, we were talking about our conversation- about how difficult it was to use English, and for me to use Japanese. I told her something I'd thought for a while- that she was really good at communicating. She smiled, kindly, as she always does, and said, "Well, but you understand Japanese." And it's true, that when she's speaking Japanese, I can often understand her- but perhaps she doesn't know how rare or valuable that is to me.
In a small way, on the train that day, I could see why people get so excited about having 'Japanese' friends- because it's a rare gift, to make a connection with someone not fluent in your language, when you are likewise not fluent in theirs. And these small connections are not such a small thing- they're like a lightning bolt telling you that your time in this foreign place, so far from home, was not a waste. It was never a waste- it was a time full of precious memories you'll never forget. I got home with my brain brimming over with Japanese phrases and words. "I'm so tired," I cried to Justin, who was sitting on the couch. He gave me a big hug. "Did you have a good time?" he asked. "Oh….. I had a great time," I said, and it was true.