Saying Goodbye to Japan

I walked into Nagatomi-sensei’s office, a little hand-made chainmail trinket buried in my pocket so that she couldn’t see it.

I sat down with her to discuss my final grade, but to me, it was really a meeting to say goodbye. I knew it would be the last day that I saw her, and after all the more I’ve seen her and come to really love her over the semester, it wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it would be. I threw out as many typical Japanese qualifiers as I could (“it’s just a boring thing,” “it’s kind of ugly,” etc) to let her know that I really wouldn’t be offended if she didn’t like the little chainmail strap thingy that I had made, but when I presented it to her, she got all flustered and excited and said that she already knew what she was going to use it for.

Well that’s a success, at least.

After that, we got together with the rest of the students from the other levels and did a short, informal rehearsal of our equally short and informal graduation ceremony. I had a bad taste in my mouth…but that was just because I’d spent the last hour sampling the bucket-list local specialty, funazushi.

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Looks like delicious fish? Have a look at that white stuff. That’s the byproduct of fermented fish. AKA fish that’s been intentionally left to spoil, then you still eat it raw. Yum.

It tasted to me like vomit, which naturally made me want to do so. But I’m still glad that I tried it!

So with that taste still lingering in my mouth, I received my certificate from the director after many bows and some pretty fancy keigo Japanese all around.

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Some students gave speeches (I opted out via winning a game in which a bowl of ramen was chased around a grammar board by a gingerbread man and Hikonyan….It’s complicated). During first-year Jacob’s lovely closing words, he asked the other students in his class to stand and thank Melville-sensei together.

And like a booger, I wasn’t paying attention and stood up too.

*****

My host mom Sachiko Tsuda showed up to my graduation ceremony and invited me out to dinner with her afterwards so that she could also have a chance to say goodbye. She brought me a lovely bag of Christmas gifts beautifully wrapped by those professional Japanese wrapping people. I carefully unwrapped them to reveal a lovely red and brown cloth fan, a book of poetry in Japanese (but with pictures to help me understand), and Hyakunin Isshu Karuta, which is a Japanese card game where you match lines of poetry. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play it.

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I introduced my host mom to Nagatomi sensei, and either they hit it off wonderfully or they’ve met before. I finally, FINALLY got Nagatomi sensei to let me take a picture with her before my host mom shepherded me off to our reserved dinner at Tsuru Tsuru (which we walked past before my host mom told me the name, after which I promptly redirected us).

写真 3(キャリーさん)

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I’d never been to Tsuru Tsuru despite it being about a five minute walk from JCMU, mostly because I’d heard it was quite expensive. Considering that my host mom didn’t let me see the bill, I still have no idea, but the meal was fantastic. On the way, my host mom glomped me and wrapped me in her scarf and gloves, insisting that I must be cold. Tsuda-san said that she wanted me to experience real, fresh, native Japanese cuisine before I left, and I certainly got it.

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From steamed egg and ginko nuts to tempura and (surprisingly) warabimochi that I actually liked, Tsuru Tsuru had it all. We were the only people there, and the server lady (and, I suspect, the homeowner, as it looked like a home-run business) was a cheerful woman who quietly chattered with my host mom about how surprised they both were at my Japanese.

We sat down and enjoyed a lovely final dinner together, changing topics often and more fluidly than I ever have in Japanese, from my acceptance into Aston University to what new English words Tsuda-san had learned. We rehearsed the pronunciation of chrysanthemum again.

As we walked back to my dorm, our conversation eventually turned to Kansai-ben (that is, the dialect of Japanese used in the Kansai region, which is where I had been living). She said that she thought it would be funny to hear a non-native Japanese speaker use it and that she thinks it’s very hard. I then turned to her and, in Kansai-ben, joked, “Yeah, I don’t understand it at all!” (ええ、分からへん.)

She was giddy with giggles.

When we made it back, host mom felt the need to go visit Nagatomi-sensei again and let her know that I was back safe. It was at that point that I realized that the next time I turned away from sensei would be my last. I thanked her repeatedly, and finally saying “Sayounara,” the more permanent Japanese goodbye, did make my eyes water just a little.

After that it was just punch after punch of the feels. I gave my host mom two chainmail charms that I made (one of each pattern that I had) so that she could have one and could also give one to Yoshizou, better known as Host Dad. She thanked me repeatedly for them and we kept finding little things to say so that we could postpone the inevitable. But finally, we parted ways with a hug, and it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized I still had her scarf clutched under my arm.

As I bolted out into the parking lot to chase my host mom down, I saw her walked a zig-zag line as she cheerfully examined the little gifts.

*****

Goodbyes came like a tidal wave — Kelsey and Ellen were getting ready to leave as soon as I came back to the dorm, as was Sam (Shigeru). I said goodbye to the girls, then invited Sam to finish the rest of my funazushi; he loves the generally-regarded “disgusting” Japanese foods (like natto), and so I was not in the least surprised when he took a bit of gooey, fermented fish and went, “Ooooh, that’s nice! Can I have it all?”

So it was a hug and some kind words from him, then Trevor comes to my door to say goodbye too in case he didn’t get the chance to see me before his departure time the next morning. Nice to know that I’m a good enough friend that I’m worth being sought out for a goodbye. (Not that those who didn’t are not, of course!)

Finally, after a clean room and some dilly-dallying around eating the apple croissant Tsuda-san had bought for us the night before, we had to give Yasu the biggest bear hugs we could manage and pile into our taxi.

JCMU faded into nothing behind us, and as I always do, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d left something important behind.

And I certainly had. It just wasn’t a physical thing.

*****

Anna and Mack were excited to be on a shinkansen for the first time; I was keeping my eyes peeled outside of Tokyo, and finally, it came in to view — the towering Mt. Fuji. So much bigger than I had envisioned it, I for a moment reconsidered my resolution to someday summit it. Unfortunately, the upper half was cloaked in cloudcover, but it was an impressive sight nonetheless.

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I spent the rest of my final day in Japan bouncing around Tokyo; originally I had planned to see one act of a kabuki show, but it ended too late for me to catch the final Keisei Skyliner because Anna wanted to have dinner in that time as well. Had I broken off from the group, I could have gone.

Perhaps I should have broken off. While dinner was fun (it was shabu shabu), it was more expensive than it was worth, and I think I would have enjoyed the kabuki more. But oh well. It was still time with friends.

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One last highlight of the trip that I was super excited for was my stay in a capsule hotel that I’d booked about 6 months prior. I’d never stayed in a capsule hotel, and since it can be hard to find one that accepts women, I was delighted to finally dig one up. Sure it’s kind of loud and apparently no one knows how to pick up their feet when they walk around at 2am, but it was still a completely worthwhile experience. Would repeat? Absolutely.

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I weighed my bags one more time, and one poor zipper on my well-traveled (read: 16 countries) little suitcase finally breathed its last with a relieved ping as it split open. Thankfully the other one came through — as long as the suitcase closes, I’m good with it.

The flight back to America was 11 and a half hours, followed by a 4-hour layover in Chicago before another hour and a half to Pittsburgh. I was biding my time on the plane, mostly listening to music. The lights were off for most of the flight, which meant I felt doubly bad for watching movies. I started with the new Rurouni Kenshin movie, which was much better than anticipated, and also went through Guardians of the Galaxy in Japanese. The Japanese man on my right slowly let his eyes creep away from the boring flick on his monitor in front of him and toward my general direction.

And so I returned to America, sitting on a flight watching Guardians of the Galaxy with a stranger.

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