Stepping into a room filled with nakedness, I wondered to myself just what I got myself into. Japanese ladies were walking in every direction, into steams of hot baths and scorching hot spring water. Was it awkward to see them without a swimsuit on? Yes. Being a 16 year old from California, seeing all this was a new revelation. I was one of eight lucky high school students chosen to represent Oakland in a high school exchange program with its sister city Fukuoka, Japan. The purpose of the trip was to create friendly relations with Fukuoka as well as learn about its many unique customs, traditions, people, and society to share with others back home in America. For our first group outing, we drove for over an hour on a lush, green scenic route through the countryside. After the onsen (hot spring), I felt like I had opened myself to a traditional Japanese social activity, one that I never imagined I would have the guts for.
Throughout the week, I experienced first hand what American TV shows and music videos usually portray about Japanese teens and people in the society. When I went to the Hawks Dome in the city, I saw these “Harajuku” girls dressed in the most unusual outfits and accessories imaginable. I thought to myself at that time, “It’s so hot here in Japan, how do they manage to wear that many layers and different pieces of clothing?” When I took the bus, I would also see girls and young ladies riding bikes in mini skirts and what looked like ridiculous five inch heels. I also encountered boys with extreme bombastic-like hair, which I named, the “disco ball.” On a morning that I took the subway, I found myself to be a sardine, smashed against the numerous amount of people taking it to work and school. I felt as though I had immersed myself into a culture completely different from where I came from and longed to further explore more of the Japanese lifestyle.
Other than the exciting experiences and insights, I can truly say I found myself a place in Fukuoka. One day I met an old Japanese grandpa whom I instantly found a connection with. For some mysterious reason, I felt like I knew him for a long time and a feeling of warmth came between us. I knew he had felt it too, when he told me at the farewell party that he was going to come see me off at the airport. To this day, I still do not fully understand the reason behind the familiar feeling I had with him. I thought to myself that maybe it was because my grandpa died before I reached the age of two and growing up without this grandfather figure created a hole in my heart. I guess the feeling of meeting, whom I came to call “Grandpa” in Japan, filled and nourished that place. On the day of my departure, he came along with his family and sought me out from a large group of people. I ran to him and burst in tears while he gave me a hug and brought out a gift he was hiding for me. It wasn’t until I got on the plane that the girl who had stayed with his family, told me that he was turning 92 that day, but still came. Because of this trip, I found a piece of myself in a complete different part of the world. Fukuoka is now part of who I am and where I found a missing puzzle to my heart.
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