Fourteen hours of engine noises, recycled air, and a middle seat between two strangers prone to motion sickness. Still, I was optimistic. I had just finished an academically-rigorous sophomore year, and was more than ready for a getaway sans pestering parents and competitive classmates. In a way, I’d been preparing for my trip to Japan since I began taking Japanese in freshman year. But those two weeks abroad taught me more than useful vocabulary. Despite language barriers and cultural differences, I learned to open my eyes to the possibility of friendship.
I landed in humid Narita close to midnight my time, but the skies told me it was only late afternoon. The bus ride to Utsunomiya, a small suburb of Tokyo, was warm and sticky. As I looked out at the rice patties glimmering with afternoon sun, I couldn’t help but feel like I was dreaming. The nervous energy I felt as we pulled into the parking lot to meet our host families finally snapped me out of my daze.
My hands shaking, I was introduced to the girl I was going to stay with. Her name was Mariko. During the car ride to her house, I tripped over my tongue trying to tell her about life in San Francisco, and despaired that my carefully memorized sentence patterns were failing me, all while trying not to freak out about driving on the wrong side of the road. But Mariko and her mother seemed interested and kind, and the more I talked, the easier it became.
By the end of that first night, I knew Mariko. We had similar interests, and stayed up late talking about shows we watched and boys we thought were cute. Between the two of us, we could find a word, either in English or Japanese, for almost everything. And when that failed, there were always hand gestures.
The next days were full of bonding over anything and everything. But all too soon, it was time to say goodbye. Standing at the train station, overloaded with luggage, presents, and the lunch her mother packed, I was more overwhelmed with sadness than my physical burdens. I cried as I hugged Mariko goodbye, and was surprised to see not only Mariko, but her mother crying as well. We promised to stay in touch, and we have.
Though I was with Mariko and her family for only a few short days, the love I came away with will follow me as long as I live. I look at everyday interactions, arguments between politicians, conflicts overseas, and see potential for friendship and empathy. In spite of everything, I now know that even when understanding seems impossible, a little bit of love can blossom if we let it.
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