I am waiting for a ferry which will take me to my next destination, Japan’s main island, Honshu. I am leaving Hokkaido. My first home in Japan. I have a few hours to kill and finally have a moment to catch up and reflect on everything I have experienced in Japan so far.
It has been a few days short of one month. What do I say about my experience so far?
I have tasted most delicious food, from cooked shrimp and oysters over bed of rice for breakfast to raw octopus, which was still moving in my mouth for dinner; from onigiri rice balls filled with tuna and caviar to glutinous rice cake filled with anko (sweet red bean paste); from the freshest raw tuna caught in sea an hour before it ended up on my plate to pieces of aged dried salted squid accompanied by home brewed beer.
I have seen deep blue caldera lakes, tall unconquerable mountains, vast green rice fields, loud, dirty but comforting city, sea ports abundant with morning markets, fishermen and tourists.
I have felt fear and humiliation standing lonely on a busy road trying to catch a car. Watching people laugh, feel sad, ignore, turn their gaze away, stare, and eventually stop.
I have discovered humility learning how to bow. Showing people respect is as natural here as breathing. Japanese bow to everyone. Customers in stores, owners of restaurants, hosts, people on another end of the phone line, friends, parents. The degree of respect is revealed through the deepness of the bow. Anything from a nod of the head to a fall on the knees with hands stretched out and head touching the floor is considered a bow. I have done them all.
I have learned about Japanese “dual personality phenomenon” (an unofficial name created by me). Watching Japanese in restaurants, parks and streets, I saw polite, pleasing people who never raised their voices, always stayed courteous, formed lines in subways, constantly apologized for everything and stayed prudish in public. But these images didn’t form well with the knowledge of popularity of love hotels, porno manga, “sarariman” obsession with teenage girls and youths’ fashion.
I have uncovered small nuances of the language which mirror the culture. For example when a waitress in a restaurant brings food, instead of telling her “Thank you”, Japanese say “Sumimasen”, which means “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry”. They want to express their feelings of discomfort for having the waitress wait on them and bring them food.
I have barely held back tears when one of my host’s mother prepared me a bento box on the day of my departure. My very own first bento box! It was done just right. Prepared with thought and care and wrapped up in a beautiful fabric. Let me explain. In Japan, when kids start going to school, their parents prepare their lunches for them to take to school. Parents take great care to arrange child’s favorite food. Often staying up late at night or waking up early in the morning; making it look beautiful; hoping the child will enjoy the food and be proud to show it off to friends. Bento is part of their childhood, part of their upbringing, part of their society. When Osaka-san made me the bento box, for a few moments, I felt I was part of it.
But most importantly I have been incredibly lucky to meet most amazing people. From complete strangers who worried about my well-being to acquaintances who became close friends through hours-long conversations. From young and still confused adults to matured few who know their place in life and society. From a girl who helped me overcome a fear to a boy who stayed up all night just to watch starts with me. From guys who drank, sang and bonded with me all night to girls who took me around town and revealed their insecurities of Japanese relationships.
I have been incredibly lucky.
And I am not about to run out of luck.