'Farewell, Blue Sea, Farewell', was a winner of an 'Honourable Mention' in the JET Program Essay Competition (1999/2000).
It appeared in it's original form in Niigata JOHO (1998)
"Remember that here all is enchantment, - that you have fallen under the spell of the dead, - that the lights and the colours and the voices must fade away at last into emptiness and silence..."
- Lafcadio Hearn
FRIDAY: After a few traumatic months the time had finally come. It seemed like so long ago I had come to this tiny town precariously balanced between the sea and the mountains to make my temporary home. Where had the time gone? There I stood at the gate as the familiar announcement came,
ichi bansen ni nobori reshya,Naoetsu yuki ga touchaku itashi masu".
A blue and white futsu densha slides in alongside platform one. This was a trip I had made countless times, yet this one was to be very different.
Visibly missing amongst the gathered crowd were many I thought may have come to bid farewell. I almost felt this was the defining moment - about those who you have touched or those you didn't. There are those that turn up at the eki, those who write you sad letters - long, short and/or incomprehensible, those that give gifts from the heart, those who call you just one last time, the shokudo owner who cries when I tell her I'm leaving. She was to cry again plaintatively bemoaning the loss of "her best customer" as I sat at the counter for one last bowl of steaming hot niku-ramen. She stood outside her little shop as I walked up the stairs to the platform, waving and dabbing her eyes with her small white hankerchief until I disappeared from view.
I reflect on my first day at the school. I had walked in sweating from the humidity, my shirt sticking in a most clammy and unattractive manner to my skin. How come it can snow in winter yet still be so stinking hot in summer? Another one of my great questions to ask God when I finally meet him. I had run out of clean shirts quickly and had bought this one only yesterday. And at a price I found hard to believe. And it was rather tight on my large gaijin frame. I was directed by my supervisor Setsuko-sensei to the desk that was to be mine, whereon were strewn over 300 summer essays to mark. The theme - "My Family".
As I began to struggle through the multitudes of both good and bad, some gems shone out. Not for their English skills, but rather their somewhat original claims. One made the observation that,
"My mother is a tractor".
Whilst others considered,
"My mother is a housewrecker"
"My mother is a car propagandizer", and
"My father is a commuter marriage"
And so began the two years of my journey into the mysterious world of teaching English in Japan. Obviously teaching some not to always directly translate from dictionaries was going to be a priority...
Early on I had lamented to other gaijin how much easier the job would be if we didn't actually have to teach any students. At the end of two years they were the part I treasured most - young and old, big and small. From cute little Yuki-chan at Oyashirazu yochien to the even cuter mountain climbing oba-chan, Mitsue Kitabayashi, at Tuesday night eikawa - they were what had got me through the rough times. I had even missed the prefectural farewell with the governor to teach one last class. I hoped I had been able to impart something to them during my time. I knew they had to me.
On my last day the school had generously parted with ¥5,000, less than the price of an enkai, delivered by a bowing kocho-sensei who had said hardly more than a few sentences to me in two years. I knew it was traditional but preferred if they hadn't bothered. It seemed so meaningless in all that had gone before. Even now, I still had much to learn about the Japanese. As I strode from the staffroom for the last time there was the teacher who didn't even look up from his desk. But my Tuesday night "Idobata" eikaiwa class were there at the eki in strength - and still plying me with gifts I couldn't even hold onto.
They all walk down to the platform with me to say their goodbyes. Sato-san hugs me in a spontaneous show of un-Japanese like public emotion. I dally for a few short moments, savouring the moment, before I step aboard. The whistle of the stationmaster rings out, the doors shut behind me, and they all continue to shout and wave goodbye. Bemused passengers look at me askew wondering what all the fuss is. As the train rocks slowly away I feel a little ambivalent - sad, but not overly so. Over the last few years I seem to have left so many people behind in so many places perhaps I was becoming too hard.
I look for the last time at the chugakko as the train passes by, and framed behind that the mountains I have loved so much. So many times I rode my bike up into those North Alps making new discoveries, getting lost in the awesome beauty of it's nature. Days of sunshine, days of rain. How I will miss them.
To the left there is a slight glimpse of my apartment block. Not mine anymore, soon to be someone elses. Tall, grey, forbidding - once referred to by a gaijin friend as, "classic 1950's communist Romanian style architecture". Now the memory of that remark brings a brief smile to my face. Yet, it is only place I will ever live in that has a seaview at the front and the mountains at the back. Grand views of Gods great vista on tap. Well, maybe apart from the local cement and chemical factory...
Neither could I ever expect again a plethora of smiling Japanese housewives clutching plates of sandwiches, fish and rice to beat their way to my door concerned for the poor hapless gaijin bachelor. "How does that poor man survive by himself?", they must have thought to themselves.
As I pass over the surging Himegawa I am leaving finally after two years. Where have they gone? It's been so fast. Maybe I regret leaving a little, but know it was the right thing. In a melancholy mood I stare out the window all the way to Naoetsu. Itoigawa, Nou, Nadachi, all the familiar names come and go. On the Japan Sea a typhoon is building and the sea lashes the coastline as the train continues to speed me away.
Later I will spend my last weekend with my girlfriend near Mt. Fuji, and I change trains to Takada so I can wait for her to finish work. I wander aimlessly as time seems to drag its heels. In and out of the convenience stores, discovering a small temple I've never seen before, one last look at Takada Castle. I sit on the bridge at the park and a few colourful carp come to the surface, mouths open, hoping for a feed. As they disappear back into the depths disappointed they remind me of many who have crossed my path in these two short years. Often appearing briefly yet leaving an unforgettable impression. Some wanting something, others just curious.
As I wander down Nakamachi I find some wet cement and casually carve my initials. I step and admire my handiwork. Will it be the only real mark I ever leave on Japan?
SUNDAY: My last night in Japan. We are caught in a traffic jam with everyone crawling toward Tokyo. Eventually near midnight we find a place near Fujino. In a Japanese style inn we sleep in our yukata. It seems appropriate.
MONDAY: We wake at 5.15 and Mami takes me to the eki, getting worried that she wouldn't find it. She tries to book me on the 8.00 express out of Tokyo but it's full. Before the train to Tokyo arrives we have the inevitable sad goodbye. A passerby offers to take a photo and Mami is embarrassed because of her red eyes from crying. She can't stand to watch the train leave and I watch through the window as her figure disappears down the grey stone steps in the early morning light. I touch the glass trying to frame her outline - but it's gone too quickly...
I'm late changing at Tokyo station and the killer instinct of Tokyo kicks in. What did I hear Tokyo described as? I think it was, "L.A. without the guns". I decide to get on the express as I figure they won't be able to kick me off until Narita anyway. I move around trying to avoid getting my ticket checked.
The airport is likes ants around a honeypot. How will I get through all this? I have problems when I eventually reach check-in because the routing had been changed to go via another two cities. All formalities take a long time, my cheap bag carrier is collapsing under sixty kilos of luggage, and I only make it to the plane with ten minutes to spare.
We fly first to Malaysia and I'm finally able to watch "Kura", a beautiful movie that I had always wanted to see but could not find with subtitles. I should've really tried to learn more Japanese. Well, perhaps I should've done a lot more things...and less of others. I keep hearing the familiar names of Niigata (Kashiwazaki, Shibata, Shiozawa, Nozumi, Kamadegawa, etc.), and see the familiar snow country, and finally a wave of emotion comes over me.
The young boy and girl actors also remind me of my munchkins who I always adored. Every Wednesday morning was like a bonus for me. Three hours of hugs, games, laughing...quickly followed a collapse into exhaustion. I had struggled under the sheer volume of lovingly hand made farewell gifts I had received from them on my last visits. When the young boy dies in the movie I think about one of my yochien kids who had died a short time before, and it increases my sadness. In a period of contemplation I think of Mami and spend some time writing her a letter. Finally the plane banks in leftward and I spy familiar landmarks. This it it...home.
LIFE AFTER: The transition is not difficult. At home I'm subsumed in so much study and peripheral activities that I have little time to miss Japan. I find myself still in the introverted mode. My home is my fortress, I stay there and keep to myself. The view out my front door is now a disused vegetable patch, full of weeds. I don't go around telling Japan stories. Nobody much would want to listen much I think. Better maybe just to get on with life.
I grow fatter, but also fitter as I ride my bike regularly and rejoin my old basketball team. Dodging trucks and cars in peak hour traffic on Main South Road I laugh to myself. My Board of Education would have a fit if they saw me doing this. How many times was I told not to ride down Highway 8 to my visit schools? Too many to remember. "Abunai", they would scold me. Sure the Japanese truck drivers were crazy but I was prepared to take that risk. I could see their point, I mean, who would want to send their one and only resident gaijin home in a lead lined box. It just seemed to me that too many things were dubbed abunai by Japanese society in general.
A couple of boxes arrive for me and a friend is more than amused when he sees them covered in ¥20 stamps. I open them up and reminisce as I unwrap the Japan Times from around each item.
A family friend, a deputy school principal, tells me of her troubles with some Japanese exchange students. She remarks that one was caught with a "porno" manga. "What would your mother say?" she asks. "My mother sent it to me" he replies. I try to keep a straight face.
A Japanese girl begins to attend the local church. They ask me to speak to her but I protest, "...really, I can't speak Japanese". "Well, you speak more than anybody else here". Fair comment. Somehow we get by in Japlish.
I want to cook some yakisoba. I locate many Japanese imported foods in an Asian grocery and spend sometime reading the labels in English. So THAT'S what I was eating all this time I think to myself in bemusement. And on it goes...
NOW: What do I think about now? Sometimes my fellow JET's, sometimes the old townsfolk, sometimes my perception of what I once had. I'm sad that I didn't develop many close friendships - even amongst the gaijin. Mainly I guess to my remoteness and the influence of prevailing cliques. I hypothesise that there are three types of JET's - those who are on an adventure, those who are focused on where JET will take them, those who are hiding out. I miss most in the first category, I miss some of those in the second category, I miss none in the last. It matters little, shoga nai, all will go with their lives and I with mine. The JET Program graciously accepted us all, for better or for worse, and affects us all in different ways.
Do I miss Japan? I feel that I don't talk about it or think of it often. Others - students, family, friends may think otherwise. In most ways life has just gone on. I will return one day, but not out of any great tug of missing things Japanese - only for matters of the economic and others of the heart. My time in the little town by the sea was not something permanent. It just was a way station on my travel through this earthly existence.
What could I say that I learnt there? Many things. Some good, others maybe bad. Sometimes I was gentle traveller, revelling in the differences from whence I had come and trying to learn, adapt, accept. Other times I was the raging bull of gaijin indignation, battling to overcome the brickwall of teeth-sucking bureaucrats and their standard explanations of, "muzukashii". I tried over and over to reconcile the paradoxes of Japanese society. How could one be so gentle yet so rude, all at the same time. I was never going to change Japanese society. Then again, why would I want to? It is not mine to change. I will leave the gaiatsu to others. I have left and the changes are in me. It is most likely I will never know of the influence of those whose lives I have passed through. Yet that is true of wherever I go, and whoever I cross paths with.
Regardless, though I have left Japan, it will never leave me. I will remember the smiles of small children, and the whistle from the nearby train tracks. I will never forget the taste of ramen in old Yamada-san's little shop, the refrain of "bai, bai" each school night as I cycled home, nor the sight of a thousand sakura trees in bloom. In years to come I will remember Japan each time I stare into the face of my children - or get a cheque from my publisher.
On hot summer nights I sometimes sit on the back doorstep listening to traditional Japanese folksongs and the memories come tumbling back. I know that in time any distant bad memories will fade away, only the good will remain, and I will only recall the time in my little Japanese town of the blue sea with a special fondness. I guess that's exactly how it should be...
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