My experiences traveling in Japan are unique to anywhere in the world I have ever been. It's the reason I travel, to be surrounded by something unfamiliar. An avid traveller since I was young, I have never experienced a culture like Japan.
The first time I stepped foot there, nearly four years ago, was to live as an assistant English teacher in Rikuzentakata, on the northeastern coast of Japan. I applied and was accepted to the JET program a year out of college, after my love of travel had grown into a desire to live in a culture completely different from my own. Up till then I had backpacked through Europe and explored the U.S. but it was all too familiar. My experiences traveling and living in Japan were anything but.
Within my first couple days in Japan I was almost run over (I didn't realize they drive on the left side of the road), I attempted to eat gratin with chopsticks and soup with a spoon (while being stared at) and was told several times, all while completely struggling to get any food to reach my mouth, how good I was at chopsticks. This was something I found would be a common occurrence, and while I took it as sarcasm, I later realized that it was more a sincere way to initiate conversation.
My first experience of actual travel in Japan was when my brother visited at Christmas. The trains in my area stopped running early evening making it difficult to get to there after 8 p.m. So I met him a few towns over, just in case he missed the last train or bus of the night. He did. It was the night of my end-of-year work party and I was anxious to get back. I flagged down a cab and asked how much it would be to drive the two hours back. He gave me a price of ¥15,000 (about $150). I agreed, our only alternative would have been spending the night in a hotel.
It was a long drive through icy mountain roads. I watched the meter hit ¥15,000 still 10 miles from my apartment. The driver pulled over and for a second I thought we were going to be stuck there. He only took cash and I had just enough to pay him. But instead he turned off his meter, apologized for miscalculating and continued on to my apartment.
Before moving to Japan, I had read "Hitching Rides with Buddha" by Will Ferguson, a story of how he had travelled from southern Japan all the way north to Hokkaido, hitchhiking and following the cherry blossoms as they bloomed. The stories he told about the kindness and generosity of strangers in Japan were seemingly unbelievable -- but I was finding out how true they were.
The best way to experience Japan is during their festivals. One famous festival is called Tanabata, where neighborhoods decorate floats and spend the day dragging them around the city having drum offs with rival floats. I participated in this festival my first week in Rikuzentakata. My neighborhood surprised me with a "Welcome to Kawara" sign on the side of our float. I happily spent the day dragging the large float around, being fed bowls of sake and chanting epic battle songs with my new neighbors. Last year the tsunami destroyed almost every float, but the festival went on. With just a couple usable floats left the city pulled together.
My favorite Japanese festival is Hanami. It's a festival about viewing cherry blossoms and appreciating nature. March and April in Japan might be the most beautiful place in the world. There was a field of cherry blossoms between my office and apartment. Everyday as I rode my bike past this field I stopped. It was a rice field surrounded by sakura, always with a perfect blue sky and misty mountains in the background. The way light shined through the translucent pedals when they blew in the wind was like a warm, snowy dream.
On March 11 of last year, just minutes after the earthquake, I woke to the sound of my phone. It was a message from one of my favorite former students in Japan. It read,
We had a strong earthquake!!!
I gave my family up for dead...
The email came after the earthquake but before the tsunami hit, and devastated, my city. Nearly three weeks went by before I would hear from her again. I'm relieved now that she and her family are alive and well but many of my close friends are not.
Here, 7,000 miles away, with internet and phone lines down, constantly being overwhelmed by images in the media, it was difficult to desperately spend every second looking for any information on the people I loved. I spent nights looking through photographs of hand-written Japanese documents of those who were safe. I became friends with people around the world I had never actually met -- but suddenly had everything in common with.
My decision to go back was not about whether I should but how soon I could. I was determined to do whatever I could to help. I was often asked if I was afraid of another earthquake and tsunami occurring or how the radiation would effect me. There are plenty of dangers in the world that we can't predict or prevent. They shouldn't stop us from experiencing life.
I ended up going last November, seven months after the tsunami hit. I was welcomed by friends and generously offered a place to stay. I heard their stories of that day and the seven months that followed. The improvements made in that time were incredible.
I volunteered in Rikuzentakata and Ofunato, the city immediately north, and returned to my former schools to help out with classes. The people I volunteered with were from all over Japan, including students who were on break, retired couples who had free time and curious people who wondered how anyone could have survived. I spent long hours digging through fields of sediment and debris.
My experiences pre- and post-tsunami were very similar. The people are still the same. They are strong and kind. Some people left their homes the day they ran away and never returned. There are still earthquakes and there always will be. The differences are in the landscape. The coast line of northeastern Japan has permanently changed. The beautiful beach with 80,000 pine trees, in Rikuzentakata, was completely wiped out.
During my return there were three things that made me feel that recovery was not far off: The kids never stopped smiling, plants had started regrowing and in true Japanese form there were usable vending machines amongst piles of debris.