Niigata | Summer, 2002 | 20 years old

Only twice did I encounter the underlying resentment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Please understand, in Nigatta I was welcomed into a home sheltered in a traditional neighborhood where community is paramount and tradition is woven into the ordinary. Westerners hardly ever, if ever, came this way, so naturally my arrival was a spectacle. An American was coming into their home to watch and witness their ordinary lives. I hoped they didn’t think I would judge their ways, comparing and contrasting our differences and judging them simple. And to top it off, I was a foreigner with whom they could hardly communicate to explain themselves, even though I was their daughter’s friend from college.

But my friend’s family kindly welcomed me into their home. My thank you: showing a childlike enthusiasm to learn and try anything Japanese. Dispelling their anxiety and breaking down a cultural barrier was a true privilege, proving that not all people limit themselves to that with which they are familiar. My friend’s mother, whom like an aunt to me I later called Obasan, fretted over my stay wondering what to cook for an American. To her surprise, I relished each colorful and carefully prepared exotic dish, tasting and enjoying the indigenous home cooked dinner.

My first morning, I went outside to take in the dusty street and green rice fields that colored the horizon. In this seemingly quiet corner of the world, an elderly woman hunched over her walking cane strolled by, muttering “Ah, Americajin, Americajin.” Distrust still lingered in her eyes. I wanted to say, Yes, I am an American. One who flew over 14 hours to immerse myself in your beautiful culture that I respect and admire. But I had not the words.

Any leisure time the family and I had was spent in the family room since it was the only room with an AC to provide relief from the sweltering summer heat. This family time was wonderful. With no one addicted to a particular program, no one argued over which channel to watch. Jokes passed from one to the next and my friend provided the translations.

Lying on the tatami mats, I looked over my workbook and notes, practicing phrases and calligraphy. Obasan and the others happily assisted by conversing within the topic so I might try my sentences and learn to understand theirs.

One night, though I am unsure how it began, my friend’s father asked my opinion of World War II. I do not remember my answer, but before my trip to Japan, I had not yet heard how many Japanese believe the decision to bomb was racist. I never learned that view from a textbook.

When her father began telling me his opinion, I looked to my friend to translate, but she only rolled her eyes and turned away. He continued speaking with me, gesturing his hands and looking directly at me so as to engage my attention, even though he must have known I could not understand. But I also felt he only wanted to share his thoughts and feelings, and so I honored him as I could. I listened.

Little Treasures: The Intricacies of Japan

Niigata | Summer, 2002 | 20 years old

The simple, individual aspects that distinguish one country from another are the treasures one discovers when traveling abroad. These little treasures comprise some of my favorite memories, leaving me with an indelible impression of the intricacies of Japan.

The morning after my friend and I arrived in her village of Bunsuimachi, Niigata, she and I crept down the steep, narrow, wooden stairs to begin breakfast at 5:00 AM. Neither of us could sleep because of the 13-hour fast forward to which our bodies could not catch up. Stopping half way down the stairs, I took a seat and wiggled my toes on the cool wood. There I was, in a traditional Japanese house. Cream-colored sliding doors to my left displayed grey-green watercolor patches; darker and lighter crisscrossed dashes conjured the image of a bamboo forest seen from above. Ahead of me, a concrete entrance led visitors into the main house, after adding their shoes to the jumbled piles along the entryway. Despite unfamiliar surroundings, I felt at home: perhaps because I had been studying Japanese culture for almost a year, or because of the home’s inviting ambiance. In either case, I wished to freeze that moment on the stairs, to remain on the edge of possibility, when I knew that outside the front door, the rice fields stretched across the horizon and into greater Japan.

My friend and I arrived just in time for the town’s summer festival, and her mother kindly dressed me in a yukata, a summer style kimono, for the occasion. As excited and nervous as I was to be clothed in the traditional garb, I remember most the reaction of the town’s people. As we walked toward the entrance of the street fair, children tugged their parents’ sleeves and the police stopped directing traffic to welcome me with loud applause and cheer. Red faced, I demurely covered my smile with my sleeve and nodded to the observers.

A garden is cared for in front or to the side of each home in Bunsuimachi. Magnificent trees, lush shrubs and vegetables, all with foreign names, add to the country scene. When walking on the dirt paths that squared off one home’s plot from the others, I discovered neighbors balancing on ladders to trim the tops of ancient cascading trees, or dusting off freshly picked cucumbers, tomatoes, edamame beans, or themselves. One quiet day, I joined my friend’s family in picking edamame. Sitting on an overturned bucket with an even bigger, red one before me, I plucked the pods from their vines and listened to them plunk into the plastic container. I thought of all the packages sitting on shelves in Asian-American grocery stores, while I was here, picking my own, in Japan. Another day, I heard my friend’s mother yelping in the vegetable garden. I assumed bees or snakes had surprised her like they do my mother. Instead, hundreds of miniature frogs overran the ground, leaping over vines and each other. In my yard back home, occasionally I stumbled upon a frog or two, but they were no smaller than my palm. Despite my friend’s and her mother’s protests, I could not help but think these teeny frogs adorable: a tiny miracle, hidden in this exotic corner of the world.

One of my favorite memories is of watching the distant fireworks from the rooftop, outside my friend’s window. The dark sky and dry air provided the perfect envelope for the occasion. And while the distance reduced the bursts to faint crackles, we heard the soft chitchat of neighbors strolling along the dirt road below.

Many hours in Niigata were spent with my friend driving along the Sea of Japan. Weaving in and out of the undulating emerald mountains, which dipped into the sapphire coast, lulled me to sleep as though we were out at sea. The sun sparkled gold on the sea, while the music of Dreams Come True accompanied us from the CD player. To this day, all I need is to insert that disc and close my eyes, and I am there again, traveling down the road of my memories: the rice fields, the cheers and the warm night air, all a part of a world colored by gems. I have my treasure, and the nostalgia is overwhelmingly beautiful.