Japan and I, we’ve had our ups and downs. Our journey together started back in February of 2005 and although I left her shores in June 2010, my deep love for this life-changing and soul-catching place will continue forever. This is our story.
It was early in the morning one day in February, about 9 degrees Celsius, and I was sitting outside Narita International Airport in Tokyo. I had a very large and extremely heavy suitcase stuffed full of everything I would need, and more importantly, a backpack with photos and mementos from home to help me stay connected and feel loved in the lonely moments I was sure were to come. I was all alone, cold, and I won’t lie, scared. What was I doing here? Why had I decided to do this? Was I crazy?
I was on my way to Hakodate, a smallish city (for Japan) with a population of about 300,000 situated in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. I was going to be living there for the next 11 months studying Japanese. This was something I had wanted to do for so long, ever since I started to learn Japanese at school when I was 12. This was my dream becoming a reality and now that it had started, I wasn’t even sure I wanted it anymore. The lead up to my departure was so hectic with all the preparations and the good-byes that this was the first moment it really hit me: I was here by myself in a country I hardly knew anything about, in a country that spoke a totally different language from me, in a country whose culture was so different, and in a country where I knew nobody.
A few hours later, Hakodate came into view as I looked out the small window of my plane down onto the snow covered city that was to be my home. It was much smaller and much more isolated than I thought it would be, and it made me feel even more alone. I actually started to shake. What if nobody was there to meet me? What if they lost my luggage? What if I just couldn’t understand anything anyone said? What if I couldn’t make any friends? What if…? What if…?
11 months later I was at my farewell party with all the friends I had made, speaking Japanese confidently and feeling like I was the independent and outgoing girl I always knew I could be. I thought back to that first day and could recall exactly how I was feeling. I was so unsure of everything. However, Japan had turned out to be so much more than I ever expected.
It was a year’s worth of Japanese classes with some fantastic teachers, who went out of their way to make everything interesting. They took us to museums to explain indigenous Japanese culture; to a beautiful temple where we actually practiced Zen with real monks; to shrines where we learned about the Japanese religion of Shinto and how they ring in the New Year; to delicious Japanese restaurants where we sampled Japanese cuisine; and to a hot spring resort where we relaxed in an outside spring in the mountains.
It was a year’s worth of fun memories with friends. We went to many traditional Japanese festivals throughout the year; we learned to snowboard in the winter; had parties under the beautiful cherry blossom trees in the spring; watched fireworks in the summer; went hiking in the autumn; sang our favorite songs at karaoke; took tea ceremony lessons; and traveled to as many new places as we could.
Traveling and immersing myself in a culture was the best learning experience for me! It taught me that dreams are achievable and that it’s not as scary as you think it will be. I gained so much confidence from that year that I decided I had to make it back to Japan, and here I am again – back in Japan. It’s been years now and I can’t help thinking that if I hadn’t made that decision to come to Japan way back then, life would be so different.