I haven’t had a lot of words lately. I’ve had plenty of experiences to talk about: a rollercoaster-like ferry ride to a tiny island in post-typhoon winds, a photo shoot for a friend’s birthday at all the famous places in the city, even the first in a card-deck full of before-you-leave-Japan challenges. I just don’t have the words to write them down adequately. I guess it’s kind of like writer’s block, but instead of not knowing what to write, it’s not knowing how. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about it, actually. “Come on, Kita, you have to start writing again. What kind of writer are you, that you haven’t even touched your laptop in days?” But just recently, I realized that’s okay. It’s okay to not write sometimes. It’s okay to just live for a while. And then, when you’re ready, you can write it down.
I thought about it, but I didn’t really take it seriously before I moved: the fact that moving meant I could start a new life. I could shorten my name. I could make new friends. I could start new hobbies. And I did.
“My name’s Dan,” she said as I sat next to her in my first day of training. It was her second, as, due to VISA delays, I’d been late getting to Japan.
In my head, I saw two possibilities in a split second. “I’m Karita,” wanted to come out, a reflex after 22 years. But I wanted something different. I needed it. And maybe it sounds small, but to me, it was the biggest change so far. So I said, “Hi, I’m Kita.”
Moving to a place where no one knows you is almost like there isn’t a you. No one knows your personality, your preferences, your dislikes and styles. So I went new places. I tried food that I can’t even name – like, literally, I don’t even know what that was – and some that, unfortunately, I could: octopus as purple as an iris, chicken intestine, tiny fish with eyeballs. I took up new hobbies, like photography, guitar, and skateboarding. Rock climbing is next on my list.
I think I was trying to make an entirely new me. I wanted to forget everything I had left behind and become someone who hadn’t lived through any of it, who was so much cooler, more experienced, just plain better. But, slowly, I came back to me. I realized that adding new pieces doesn’t mean I need to get rid of the old ones. I started saying no to foods that look questionable. (I’m not all that picky, but if your stomach churns at the thought of putting something in your mouth, don’t do it.) I stopped putting up with people’s bullshit just because I wanted us all to be friends. I accepted the new parts of me that I thought should stay, but stopped trying to be someone I’m not. And I returned to my oldest passion: fiction writing.
At the end of my senior year of college, I was sitting at lunch with the sports administrator and the university’s president (it’s a small school). The sports administrator asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to be honest, and I told him that, although I’d basically denied it for most of my life, I really wanted to be a writer. The president spoke up and said, “But what are you gonna do for money?” He’s an endearing old man.
So, with an internal middle-finger-up to everyone who’s – intentionally or not – put me down, I’m gonna do my best to become the best damn writer I can be. Will I make a career out of it? I don’t know. But will I love it? Without a doubt, and if I’ve learned anything in life so far, that’s what really matters.
It’s a slow evolution, so forgive me; I’m just starting out. Here goes nothing.
Note to self: do not buy new boots for a five-day hike. You will regret it.
My boyfriend and our best friend, Angela, found a famous pilgrimmage hike just a few hours south of us in Wakayama Prefecture. The Kumano Kodou is made up of several routes that cross the largest peninsula in Japan and visit hundreds of small, historic shrines. (Originally, we had wanted to go to Yakushima, a southern island famous partially because of the Ghibly movie Princess Mononoke, but decided travelling there would be a bit expensive. I was happier about the trail change later when our friends did this hike and explained how hikers were supposed to poop in bags and carry them with them until they came across a – rare – disposal site. Pooping in the wild? I’m game. Carrying it up a mountain? Helllll no.)
The Kumano Kodou crossed mountains, small towns, several rivers, and two incredibly famous and beautiful large shrines. (In all honesty, I’m not a big shrine person. In my opinion, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen most of them. But these two were still impressive: Hongu Taisha and Nachi Taisha.) The trail was often cut along the side of a mountain, with a sharp incline on one side and a steep decline on the other. If you’re afraid of heights, this trail is not for you. Several times, we worked on the quad muscles with some steep rocky stairs, but the trail occasionally took a leisurely flat break along the highway.
We started our journey by taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Osaka, then an express JR to Kii-Tanabe. From there, it was a short bus ride (alongside a couple other foreigner hikers) to Takijiri-oji, the “spiritual entrance” to the mountain trails. I took a short nap on the hour-long bus ride, dreaming I found my boyfriend in his hammock being constricted by a large boa – which don’t live in Japan – and I had to cut off its head with our tiny pocket knife – probably not the best plan – to save his life. Best girlfriend award, right here.
The information center just next to the bus stop offered us a last bath of air conditioning, a few pictures of traditional hikers, and my personal saving grace, a bamboo walking stick (which, naturally, we named “BamBoo Radley).
We took the Nakahechi trail, the easy route – don’t be fooled, it wasn’t easy – which was considerably safer than the trail for experts, on which you have to hammock because there’s almost never enough floor space to set up a tent. There also may or may not be a larger number of snakes and bears on that trail, but that just adds to the fun, right?
From Takijiri-oji, the trail begins with a hazing ritual of rock stairs that take you about 300 meters up – elevation-wise, not distance. I immediately regretted my “wearing a hoodie is a good idea” decision, but the excitement of the hike starting pushed us onward – and upward – at a good speed. Maybe fifteen minutes in, we passed a giant rock with a small cave underneath. A sign near the rock told a story about a couple who had a baby while on the trail and left it behind, inside the cave, to be protected until they finished their pilgrimage and came back for it. Fortunately, a wolf apparently took the child under it’s wing…or paw… and took care of it until the parents came back. Thus, any woman who enters the cave and climbs through the birth-canal-like hole at the back is guaranteed a safe delivery. Naturally, we all braved the dark cave and pulled our way out – “Hes’ crowning!” – through the tunnel. It seemed like a good omen. And on we continued, though a bit dirtier than we’d started. Later that evening, we passed through a small village. Maybe “village” is a generous word – there were a few houses with large gardens, a rocky carpark with a great view, and a couple of sign for the hikers. The people we passed by were very friendly and seemed excited to have travelers coming through. One of them, a woman who owned a souvenir shop, let us fill up our water bottles in her shop. She also offered us shelter from the three minutes of rain that appeared out of nowhere. A few minutes’ walk farther, we found a coffee shop where the owner brought us fresh oranges and pizza with our coffee, which we drank in a small clearing with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. She even offered to let us camp there, but we decided to use the next hour of sunlight to move a little further on the trail. Observation: people in small towns tend to be much more friendly and approachable to strangers than people in big cities. In my experience, Japan and the U.S. appear very similar in this way.
The first night, we hung our hammocks in trees just next to the path, which had recently been logged. The forest still seemed pretty dense, but about one third of the trees had been cut down to stumps. We ate dehydrated pasta boiled on the camping stove my boyfriend had brought, created our first “bathroom,” and went to bed around 7 pm, because it was too dark to do anything else.
The next day, we saw our first fellow hiker, our second snake, I started to sunburn, and the sweetest man gave us all little origami kimonos. Soon after, we had to take a sunny, up-hill detour because part of the trail had cracked open during an earthquake a few years before. An hour or two of sweat, sunlight, and a splinter under my nail later, we made it to the top and were close to our planned campground; a rest stop with a bathroom and small eating area. We set up our camp in the trees close by. A trio of French travelers camped out in the rest stop and we ended up sharing our dinners, our whiskey, some oranges, and a few travel stories. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
On day three, we discovered that going downhill might just be worse than going up. I like to think of myself as being in pretty good shape. Not as good of shape as I was in college, due to – in effect – being paid to work out (hello, college athletics), but I still run a couple of times a week and do HIIT Youtube videos when I don’t feel like going outside. But this hike killed me. Every day was a full day of “how far can we go” and “how fast can we do it.” Now, my knees aren’t what they used to be (hello, college athletics), and eventually it got to where going down the mountain hurt as badly as going up. My new boots had formed quarter-size blisters by the second day, and by the third I was walking like and 80-year-old. By the fourth day, my boyfriend was hobbling alongside me. Angela, on the other hand, looked like she was enjoying a breezy walk in the park.
But it was beautiful. That day, we made it through Hongu Taisha, where we stopped for some touristy things, udon, and Kumano Kodo beer with a view of Japan’s largest tori gate, before continuing on the trail and making it to one of Wakayama’s top 100 sunrise/sunset view points. That alone was worth the pain. Nothing but mountains, as fare as the eye can see, the sky every shade of gold as the sun moved towards the farthest peaks. Unfortunately, we had to camp another hundred meters down. Don’t tell my father I slept by a drop-off in a carpark in the middle of nowhere. We were close to running out of water, and though we knew we’d be passing a place to fill up the next day, that was a whole night and about 2 kilometers away. By some stroke of luck, the Japanese couple that we passed heading to the sunset point as we were leaving it drove past our campsite and offered us a two-liter bottle of tea. I thanked them about seven times the next morning when we ran out of water.
Before we left the campsite for our fourth day, I made the discovery that compost bathrooms are crazy. It took me about two minutes to realize that underneath the toilet was supposed to move and make noise and it wasn’t a killer coming to get me. My mom always said I had a great imagination.
We missed another stamp and took an unexpected detour through a graveyard on our way into the next town. Finding a place for water, we each gulped a stomach-full before filling our bottles. How good is water? At this point, my feet were hurting so badly I almost couldn’t walk. DO NOT HIKE IN NEW BOOTS. Newb. We were close to a bus stop that could take us the rest of the way, so as Rory went to check on bus times, Angela and I sat down to cook a late lunch. When he came back with news that the next bus was four hours away, we decided to just tough it out and continue for the last several kilometers. I was being a wimp, but I knew he really wanted to be able to say he’d walked to whole trail, so we agreed to finish on foot.
That was before we realized the next 800 meters were up. UP, up. You know how, when you run a race you’re supposed to pace yourself and then at the end, when the finish line is in sight, you switch to an all-out sprint, giving everything you have to those last hundred/thousand steps? That’s what we did. And damn, did it feel good at the top. There’s a sign there, at Echizen-toge Pass, with a quote from an old, famous poet (Fujiwara Teika) who hiked the Kumano Kodo in 1201 (yeah, that’s how old the pilgrimmage is), saying, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” I imagine it was a little tougher in traditional Japanese wear, but bro, I feel you.
Not too long after that, just before it was too dark to continue, we found our last campsite. It was probably our best, with a table for our dinner, perfectly-spaced trees, and an amazing view of the end-of-the-trail valley right next to the ocean. We ended up paying the price for the view that night, when the wind came through and nearly froze us. (Or maybe just me; the other two said they slept fine, whereas I shivered and peeped my head out of my sleeping back every thirty minutes to see if it was light enough to wake them yet so we could get a move on.)
Having somehow lost the last of our granola bars, we ate a breakfast of nuts and Earl Grey tea before traveling the last kilometer down to Nachi Taisha. It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, with a three-story orange pagoda right next to a tall waterfall offering the best backdrop for tourist photos. At that point, I was too hangry to fully enjoy the area – we’d thought there would be a cafe and a chance for a more filling breakfast, but no such luck. After getting our fair share of pictures, we were ready to move on to the final leg of our journey – although it took us a solid twenty minutes to figure out where the bus stop was. It was a short ride to the JR station that would take us home, but we all agreed on lunch being a top priority. We found a cafe – a beautiful, warm, home-cooked meals cafe – and we each ate two full meals, either totally impressing or completely disgusting the locals at the nearby tables.
Happy, full, and exhausted, we boarded the train an hour later and settled in for the four-hour ride along the coast back home.
Once you’re happy, you think that’s it. You’ll be happy forever. You move to a new place, start a new job, make new friends, and you breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, this is where I’m supposed it be. This is what everything was leading up to.
But that’s not always the happy ending. It’s a continuation and every day isn’t perfect. Every day isn’t great or happy, and sometimes you feel yourself sliding back into the grayness, looking for a handhold to hang onto to keep yourself out of it. Sometimes you find one. Sometimes you don’t. And there you are again, in the black hole of Why am I even here? Was this a mistake? Would it have been better if I’d stayed? I miss everything. I want something different. It’ll never be okay.
But then, one day, all of a sudden the sun is shining. Not the faint rays of morning in the spring, but the direct heat of a mid-June picnic. Everything is perfect, and as you scratch the itch that whispers its doubts, you think, again, that it’ll last forever.
Japan’s schooling is fascinating.
In Japan, working overtime is the cool thing to do. You don’t actually have to be doing anything important. But you have to stay at work 1) as long as your boss does, and 2) long enough to tell people that you have ridiculously long hours. (Now, this isn’t always true. In some jobs, you actually have that much work to do – is it necessary work? I’m not sure. But the “overtime is cool” rule applies to almost everyone I’ve met.) The long hours have gotten so bad that many companies have to go through lawsuits based on claims of overworking their employees.
This transfers over to students in school. Being busy, ALL DAY, is the key to being (or looking) successful. I have junior high school students who come to my class at 9:00 pm, after a day of going to school around 8:00 am, going to some sort of sports club after school, and then usually going to cram school after that. They’re exhausted, physically and mentally, before my class even starts. They have a solid 14-hour day, every day. An exception here – at least in that particular class – was one boy who told me he also woke up at 5:30 every morning to study before school. Clocking in that overtime.
But with heavy competition to get into the right university, there started to be be intense competition to get into the right high school, and eventually more competition just to get into the right junior high school. So huge numbers of hours studying in order to get the right job are necessary before most students have even decided what their favorite class is.
If you pass the test to make it into one of the highly-selective private schools, you’re on the right track to a *bright future. But if not, you’re stuck in public school – which isn’t really where you learn things. Sleeping during class is okay. There are levels of respect to your teacher that must be paid, but the daily procedure is “listen and repeat.” Critical thinking isn’t required. And if you have any real questions, ask your cram school teacher. You just have to pay them a lot of money first.
Footnote: living in a country doesn’t make me an expert on it, and I can’t assume knowledge of the entire country based on the one prefecture I teach in. But these overtime, high-pressure tendencies are hardly out of the norm.
Moving to Nagoya, Japan was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Life-changing. Life-saving? Dramatic semantics.
One year ago, I had recently broken up with the boyfriend I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. The one who was my best friend, who I could talk to about anything, who I shouldn’t have been with because he’d already broken up with me once to get back with his ex. And after that – the final break-up – I was okay for a while, because I thought it just hadn’t worked out but we’d still be close friends forever and I’d always be his “day one,” until I found out that he was back with his ex, again. The ex I’d worried about during our whole relationship. The one he’d sworn he couldn’t see a future with anymore. And it wasn’t even him who told me.
And then it felt like I’d lost everything. I didn’t have anything left; a direction, a purpose, a future. And for the second time in my life, I wanted to kill myself. Sometimes, you don’t realize a relationship is toxic until you end it.
I’d already decided to take the jump and move to a foreign country. But at the time of the decision, a thought in the back of my mind was that when I came back, he’d be waiting for me. And then I realized the only person he’d ever waited for was her.
So I broke down. I cried in front of my friend and played happy in front of my family. I got black-out drunk at a bar and went to work the next morning like nothing happened. And then I packed all of the pieces into two suitcases and a backpack and changed the course of my life forever.
It wasn’t perfect immediately. I went through ups and downs so quickly it terrified me. But, slowly, everything started to fall together. The job title of “teacher,” the one I’d sworn I’d never stand under, started to tattoo itself on me and I discovered that I loved it. The freedom and beauty of walking around my city instead of driving through it gave me air I didn’t know I hadn’t been breathing. I stopped working out with the purpose of looking good when I went out to clubs with boys who had no interest in knowing me for longer than one night, and I started running so that I could breathe and feel again. And I started to return to music.
Nagoya is a city most people consider a passing-through point. It’s like my home state of Kansas, known as a flyover state. But if you’re in either one long enough, you realize they’re so much more. People playing music in the park or close to train stations, small bands meeting and joining to play like they’ve always known each other, bars that welcome you in like you’re family, and people who listen to you play week after week and encourage the beginners just as much as the experts.
Last night, I went to a jam at the house of a couple I’ve only known for a few months. I was encouraged to sit at the piano, pick up a ukelele, belt out some Beatles, and go home with an extra pair of drum sticks and a Rudiments practice sheet. And I realized I have a reason to live again.
I wine have not.
Say whaaaaat? …It’s a real problem, though.
I sometimes wonder about the psychological differences between people who grow up speaking English and people who grow up speaking Japanese. (Or any other similar languages, but these are the two I’m familiar with.) Because English is subject-verb-object, while Japanese is subject-object-verb. For example, the English sentence “I don’t like llamas” becomes “I llamas like not” in Japanese. So, listening to the same sentence in both languages, English speakers know sooner whether it’s a negative or positive statement, and Japanese speakers first hear what the object is that is or isn’t being liked. I wonder if this slight difference results in different thought processes, not only in such simple sentences, but especially in more complicated ones.
(Just Googled it. I can’t find any studies on the exact topic, but apparently, there are some pretty significant differences between the thought processes of different language speakers. If you’re interested, read this essay by Lera Boroditsky: “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?” https://www.edge.org/conversation/lera_boroditsky-how-does-our-language-shape-the-way-we-think)
Japanese also does this cool thing where the subject – in the above example, “I” – is not needed. You can just say “Llamas like not” and it’s a perfectly normal sentence. Actually, “Like not” is also acceptable as long as the object is already understood.
I asked a group of my adult students, “If a man from Australia and a woman from America have a baby in Japan, it grows up in Japan, and it speaks Japanese, is it Japanese?” The whole group made a noise that is incredibly familiar to anyone who has asked a Japanese person a personal or difficult question: it’s the sound of sucking in air between your teeth and it generally means, “No, of course not, but I’m too polite to say those exact words.” Other translations can be: “I don’t know” or “It’s difficult to say.” When pressed, they all agreed that the child (in order to no longer use the word “it,” let’s say this child is a girl) was most definitely not Japanese. Although she was – hypothetically – physically born in Japan, her ancestry is not Japanese and she therefore is not and will never be Japanese. This is a stark contrast to the built-by-immigrants country I was born in, where if your first breath is above American soil, you are forever a citizen.
The Japanese word for “foreigner,” if you’re wondering, is gaijin. I hear it often, said by both foreigners and Japanese people alike, and I realize that is always what I will be here. It’s strange knowing that no matter what I do, I will never “fit it.” No matter how much of the language I learn, how much of the culture I absorb, or how much time I spend working here, I will always be gaijin. The struggle of a majority member becoming part of the minority.
Anyway. Later, gator.