Until last February, I’d never been out of North America. You can imagine my surprise and joy when I found out that I would be going to a major city in Japan. The trip to Fukuoka was, for me, the greatest gift I’ve ever received. It was such a wonderful surprise that I could hardly believe it.
The way my friend Malvina and I found out we would be going to Fukuoka is a funny story: One day in school last January, we were called into Dr. Frutiger’s office – he is a coordinator for the International Studies Department at our school. When we sat down to speak with him, wondering what we might have done wrong, Dr. Frutiger simply asked Malvina and I if we would like to go to a meeting. We were a little confused, so we asked him for more details: Where?
He simply responded “In Japan.” That was all we needed to hear. The awestruck expressions on our faces were priceless. We enthusiastically said “Yes! Of course!”
And that was just the beginning. From then on, as we prepared for our trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, that sense of surprise and elation stayed with me. It was like a dream – I was finally getting a passport, we met with diplomats at the Japanese consulate here in Atlanta, I was thinking of what gifts I could possibly bring my host family… I was too excited for words.
Finally the day came when Malvina and I drove to Hartsfield-Jackson airport and boarded a Delta plane headed to Narita airport in Tokyo. Even the flight was a new cultural experience for me. Most of the other passengers were Japanese, the food served was a combination of Japanese and American, and the flight attendants translated all messages in both languages. By the time we landed, I was already falling in love with Japan.
After our second flight to Fukuoka, Malvina and I were exhausted. But as we rounded the corner to baggage claim and saw the faces of our equally-excited host sisters, we experienced a rush of ecstasy. This was it. This was really happening. After getting our suitcases and meeting with our host families, Malvina and I split ways. Not really – because we would see each other almost every day during activities or at school – but all the same I felt as though I was truly doing something independently. I was no longer surrounded by familiar faces; everything was new to me.
Just as easily as I had fallen in love with Japan, I fell in love with my host family. My warm-hearted, loud and funny host dad counterbalanced the quiet, serene nature of my host mom. My host brothers were kind and sweet, and my host sister, Sachiko, and I bonded so easily. I had been paired up so well, matched with a dynamic girl who kept me laughing all day long, and whom I respected for her confidence and humility. I can’t imagine having a better host sister, a better friend than Sachiko. We listened to music together, danced with her hip-hop club, and taught each other about our cultures. She taught me some Japanese, and I listened to her English improve throughout the week. Needless to say, the experience was extremely beneficial to both of us.
My week in Fukuoka was very busy; I felt so thankful to everyone who had helped plan our trip, because our itinerary was just wonderful. Through multiple tours, planned cultural experiences, and meetings with diplomats and other leaders, I gained such respect for the Japanese culture. Our free time was equally important. By walking around downtown, shopping, going to restaurants, visiting shrines, temples, and castles, I experienced the contrasts of Japanese society: the traditional versus the modern, the sacred versus the mundane. I learned about Japanese values and practices, and eventually I reached a point where I was able to remember to take off my shoes first or I remembered what greetings I should say to certain people. There were so many things in Fukuoka that I did not want to leave behind but wanted to take with me back home – zenzai, cherry trees, the music, the laughter…
Mostly I didn’t want to leave the people or the land. Fukuoka is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. As a lover of mountains and sea, it was a perfect fit for me. The houses nestled into the valley, the looming skyscrapers in the distance – I feared that Sachiko would be let down when she came to Atlanta; there is no comparison between the cities, I thought.
Knowing that I would see Sachiko and Aoi again was the only thing I had to look forward to when I left Fukuoka. I did not want to leave a place where I had felt so welcomed. I was happier in Fukuoka than I could remember being in a long time.
I was probably so happy because I was surrounded by joyful people. The girls at school, who swarmed Malvina and I and asked to take pictures with us, all had this incredible joy about them – they were always smiling and giggling. At school, Malvina and I were treated like celebrities. Kids would run down the hallways to get a glimpse of us in a classroom. They dared each other to say something to us during calligraphy class. They wanted to be around us, because we were different. And we wanted, so badly, to be around them, too. Unlike my school, where I count down the hours until it gets out, Sachiko’s school was a place I didn’t want to leave. I sat through English, Japanese, science, and calligraphy classes and tried to pay attention, even if I couldn’t understand what the teachers were saying. After school, when I went to dance practice with Sachiko, I wanted the hours to stretch as long as possible so I could stay there.
I wanted my week in Fukuoka to never end. When we finally left, I kept playing everything over and over in my mind. I wanted to turn around and go back. If I’m lucky, I will get a chance to return and visit Sachiko again in the near future.
The lessons I learned from my visit to Fukuoka will stay with me forever. Specifically, I learned about Fukuoka and about Japanese culture. When I tell people that I went to Japan, I feel like I wasn’t just a tourist, but I was a part of the country, even if for only one week. But I can apply my experience in Japan to so much more: I learned about the importance of diplomacy and international travel, and even more valuable, I learned that humanity has an extraordinary capacity for love and communication. Our differences can bring us together, because underneath it all, we are humans who love to laugh and live life to the fullest.
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