This past June I flew to Japan. I was deliriously underprepared for the experience that awaited me. I had crossed the Pacific Ocean to attend Tokyo’s Sakuragaoka High School for a three week course of study. On my first day, a cute Japanese classmate invited me to be in a long distance relationship with him. He may have been clowning around, but I certainly got a lot of attention in Japan with my blond hair and blue eyes.
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Japan was magical. In particular I was amazed by the details. They take such great care in the presentation of things. The packaging is often as beautiful as the gift. Because they take great pride in presentation, even their public transport was spotless. Compared to San Francisco’s BART, I couldn’t believe how clean the trains were. I was so surprised when even a taxi driver gave me a paper sewing kit (wrapped in a tiny kimono) as a receipt for my fare.
I found the Japanese people were always giving me things! Because I admired it, I ended up coming home with a fry pan—a gift to me from a classmate after a day spent together in Harajuku. Harajuku is THE shopping mecca for Japanese teenagers. In Harajuku we visited as many Purikura photo booths as possible. These booths allowed my friends and I to alter the shape of our eyes, to smooth out our skin, and to shine up our hair. When we were done we looked exactly like Manga cartoon characters–hardly human and with no flaws.
A Japanese school day is long. I woke at 5:15 a.m., had a beautifully presented breakfast (with balled cantaloupe and freshly squeezed orange juice), got on the first bus, transferred to a second, and then walked another 15 minutes until I finally reached school. Usually our studies finished by 3 p.m., but the many after school clubs lasted until 6:00. We got home for dinner by 8 p.m., did homework until 11:00 and then started the cycle all over again the next day. The schedule was exhausting!
While there my host family introduced me to Tanabata, a wishing holiday of paper trees and chains. We made origami ornaments to hang from the chains to symbolize the meeting of two lovers under the Milky Way. My host mother put me in a kimono–an hour long process. I was amazed at her skill in wrapping me into my dress. She also did my hair in traditional fashion, with pins and flowers. I loved the reverence of the dressing ceremony.
My favorite and also the most sober day trip I took was to the city of Hiroshima. Hiroshima was both terrible and beautiful at the same time. I never knew that the little girl Sadako (of “A Thousand Paper Cranes”), died as a result of radiation released by the atomic bomb. Sadako’s greatest wish was one of healing: “I will write peace on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.” It was revelatory to learn more about others like her, and to hear the story from the Japanese point of view. It goes without saying that both sides were wrong. Even so, America had no right to do what it did.
Japan was life-changing for me. I found that I admired the kindness and compassion of the people I met. Japan is a society rich in food, culture, history and time. The Japanese people work hard, but place great value on the small moments. I will value the “small moments” I lived in Japan for the rest of my life.
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