I cannot remember the name of the boy whose elbow is pressing into my arm. The ten Japanese children I am travelling with huddle underneath a heavily adorned tile overhang along with all the other tourists. I squint through the pouring rain at the torii gate, my gaze flitting past a lion-dragon’s bared teeth and a small noh stage. The torii is famous for seeming to float on the water, but in the rain the bright red gate takes on a ghostly aura as if it is indeed a gate from the physical world into the spiritual realm. The shrine’s patron, Susanoo no Mikoto, god of seas and storms, is paying a visit.
Susanoo is a temperamental god, sometimes acting as a villain and sometimes as a hero. He is indiscriminatory with his soggy wrath. Everyone is identically drenched. Rich and poor, foreigner and Japanese are treated as equals by the downpour. My light brown hair and height still stand out and all the conversation I can make is to proclaim ame (rain in Japanese), but here, seeking shelter from a god under a five hundred year old canopy, it does not matter.
There were flickers of familiarity leading up to my trip to Itsukushima. When I glanced over my host sister’s shoulder and recognize math on her summer homework. When I knew the name of an anime character on a student’s folder and was later presented with a pencil drawing of said character. These were fleeting moments when I forgot that the short, black haired people around me did not speak my language.
These experiences were diluted by a foggy haze not unlike the one that shrouded Itsukushima’s torii. These were split second comforts that soon faded into the discomfort I felt when I could not read street signs. The week and a half leading up to my shrine visit was not having a textbook for the English class I sat in on and realizing I had forgotten my pajamas at home in North Carolina. It was only picking out the word for snow in a five minute song. It was the shower room being locked at the complex in Tokyo I stayed in the first night and having to go to bed sweaty and then waking up in the middle of the night because of a small earthquake. It was wanting to yell “I am not an ignorant tourist, I am staying here for four weeks!” every time I got a sideway glance on public trains.
The week and a half before Itsukushima I was drowning in my American-ness. I was distracted by everyone-around-me’s Japanese-ness. I was haunted by the things I did not understand and often felt left out because I did not belong anywhere in the society. That changed as I stared out across the water at the red gate, my hair and clothes dripping on the wood floor. In the rain and fog and absence of sunlight I was struck by an idea.
Belonging is not forgetting that the people around me were Japanese. I did not have to be home to feel at home. Being comfortable in a place and with a people is to remember that embarrassment and compassion and amusement are like rain drops. Emotions soak through people’s clothes and langauge and hair color to leave them, leave us, utterly human. There is a kinship that comes with being caught in the rain.
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