What I remember now, after everything has passed, is standing still on a Tokyo train, eleven thirty-five pm, and time marching on. We were riding home—the Kobokan community center, placed in a tired little neighborhood near the Hikifune station (as places are judged, in the city). Even this late, the car was packed beyond belief. I was lucky enough to be jammed against a door, my cheek pressed to the scratched plexiglass window. At every station, the door would open and I would spill out, again and again, bleary-eyed and half asleep. But when the train was moving, oh. The rail was suspended above the city, and at night, the buildings and the neon, the blinking hearts of the many fashionable Tokyo late-night districts, Harajuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, glowed and streaked like blue and white stars. The city is galaxial, and from the train, silent.
I was only in Tokyo for a week; it was a school trip, language-immersion-centric. While most of Tokyo speaks English, many of the rural areas speak little-to-no English. And so it was with my host family, in the tiny city of Towa, hidden deep in the blue, smoky mountains of Iwate. We had arrived during rice planting season, and the smoke that rose from burning fields (a traditional fertilization practice) mingled with the ethereal mist that never seemed to fade. Living in Iwate was a dream.
My limited grasp of Japanese made communication with my (incredibly generous and understanding) host family draining, and often frustrating. The first few nights I curled up on my futon, thinking of home, listening to the quiet breathing noise of my host-sister. I gulped down bowl after bowl of fish-based miso soup, unable to politely communicate that fish was meat, and unwilling to compromise courtesy (it is terribly impolite not to finish one’s meal). I stared, uncomprehending, at Japanese television—it was only later I understood that even with full knowledge of the language, the shows made no sense. They revolved around such plot devices such as aliens, and wigs.
But it got better. We went kayaking, and I did not drown. My host siblings Yuki and Yuuka taught me how to properly appreciate Japanese cartoons, while my host parents expanded my knowledge of Japanese culture and tradition tenfold by visits to such historic sites as the Golden Hall (Chuson-ji), as well as trips to the museums such as that of the internationally famed author Miyazawa Kenji. I ate pounds of rice. I learned how to make okonomiyaki, Japanese pancakes. I began to enjoy every minute, and I fell in love with the place, the misty mountains that smelled like burning leaves, the infinite rice paddies reflecting cloudy or sunny skies. Iwate is beautiful. And Towa, as its town hall claims, is the friendliest little village you will ever see.
When we left for Tokyo, I was slightly heartbroken. Yuuka had cried when I got on the train, and had run to give me a last hug. My thoughts were melancholy for the three-hour train ride.
But the city was as wonderful as the country, though very different. We saw Studio Ghibli, countless and nameless shrines and temples, markets traditional and new-age. I ate Japanese-Italian fusion (never again). And so I fell in love with the city.
And that is why that final night, eleven thirty-five pm and time marching on, on a train rushing above Tokyo, tired but forgoing sleep until the thirteen hour flight back to America, that I was just slightly heartbroken. The lights seemed to go on forever, and maybe they still do.
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