Farewell tour

Here comes the home stretch.

Although my contract runs through July 31st, my last real day of work is now less than a month away. When the semester finishes up on July 19th, I will deliver my farewell speech, effectively closing the book on two years as a teacher at Kazusa Junior High.

I’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice my speech in the meantime. I teach at seven elementary schools, and at each one, I’ll be saying goodbye.

The teachers I work with all know I’m leaving, but I can’t say the same thing for all the students. I’ve been forthright in answering questions on the subject, but I don’t bring it up of my own accord, and the students rarely ask. They’re a little too absorbed in their own lives to wonder at length about mine, and that’s probably as it should be.

Still, for those that don’t already know, I imagine it will be a little strange hearing me announce that I’m leaving. Not because they have any special attachment to me–I don’t have any Dead Poet’s Society illusions–but because of the finality of the thing.

It’s strange for me, too, because I know I’m leaving Kazusa for good. Both times I have moved from one city to another, I left an ellipse behind me, with the knowledge I’d return again in time. When I leave Kazusa next month, it will be with a period, full stop.

I don’t mean this as a kiss-off. For all that it lacks, I have some affection for Kazusa, and even more for its people, who did their damnedest to make me feel at home in a place that simply wasn’t. Even so, there’s nothing for me to return to here, and if I did, it would be as a stranger.

We tend to romanticize the places in our lives. Whether it’s the school you attended, the bar where you met your girlfriend, or the house you grew up in, we keep space in our heart for the places that mark our personal milestones.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think most of us recognize, when we think about it, that it’s seldom the place itself that makes the memory. That’s a little like eating a great meal, then looking back fondly on the way it was plated. Even if you remember vividly the cracked paneling of the basement where you had your first kiss, it’s not the basement that brings a smile to your face. It’s the experience.

Of course, setting still matters, since it can certainly influence the experience one way or another. But the background takes a back seat to what’s most important: the people. If you want to know a place, you have to know its people. There’s only so much you can glean from passive observation. To understand a place, you have to see it through native eyes.

I’ve met a lot of nice people in Kazusa. In fact, almost everyone in Kazusa is nice, to a fault: I frequently receive gifts I neither want nor need but cannot politely refuse. These are good people, and I have nothing for them but admiration and gratitude.

What I don’t have, by and large, are relationships with the people here. Although I have had many surprises since arriving in Japan two years ago, the biggest may have been how difficult it can be to forge lasting relationships in another country.

In some ways, this is strange, since making acquaintances is actually easier here than in the U.S. People are curious, or they want to practice their English, and so they’ll approach you unprompted. Meeting people is easy–getting to know them is hard.

It’s a language thing, right? Of course, it’s a language thing, but that’s not the whole story. Even if you share a classroom or a workplace with dozens of English-speakers, you’d consider yourself lucky to find two or three friends in the lot. It’s not just a language thing.

It’s also about time. As a visitor, even one with a three-year visa, you are on borrowed time: it’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll be leaving. That’s not an obstacle to friendship in and of itself, but when the future is already written, people are less inclined to invest heavily in developing rapport.

And rapport is the currency of a meaningful relationship. Whether shared experiences, pop culture references, or inside jokes, rapport takes time and effort to grow, even under the best circumstances. When artificial barriers like language and time are in place, the process is even slower.

But perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome is the lack of common ground. There are a few things, like food and weather, that everyone can relate to, but these universal topics usually aren’t enough to lay the foundation for friendship. A similar background, similar interests, or similar ambitions do wonders to grease the wheels of rapport. Opposites may attract, but without something in common, they seldom stay together.

It bears mention that this isn’t just a case of Japanese culture against American culture. The people of Kazusa are, in general, about as unlike me as you’d be likely to find anywhere in Japan. They are farmers. They are fishermen. They are older, and married, with children. They were born here and have lived nowhere else. They are different, not just from me, but from other Japanese like me.

As I prepare to say goodbye to these people, I am conscious of the fact that I will seldom revisit this chapter of my life. Without (Japanese) friends to visit or reminisce with, my time in Kazusa will be as it has been, a sojourn inside the self. When I look back on my time here, it will be a personal reflection in every sense of the word.

Perhaps I will feel more sentimental about my departure as it nears. Is it possible to miss a place without wanting to return to it? Is it possible to miss a person you didn’t really know? I promise you that it is. But it’s still time for this gaijin to go.

The farewell tour begins next week.


Banzai, Kansai

If Tokyo is Japan’s head–the nerve center, seat of its government, the face it presents to the world–then surely Kansai is its heart. While the capitol may control Japan’s fate, the emotional lifeblood of Japanese culture still flows outward from Kansai, where the past and the present commingle on every corner.

The Kansai region consists of seven prefectures to the west of Tokyo in central Honshu. Though each prefecture boasts its own local charms, most visitors to the region will find themselves in Keihanshin, the contiguous urban area home to Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto.

Sprawling across three prefectures, Keihanshin is an urban configuration unknown in American geography. With over 18 million people living in three cities spread over 4,300 square miles, you could approximate the region by laying Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. next to each other, and cramming them all inside the geographic boundaries of metro Boston.

This makes Keihanshin a unique experience for both visitors and residents alike. With an efficient, easy-to-use railway system, traveling between the cities feels scarcely different from taking the T across Boston (only a lot cleaner). But while most cities have a variety of neighborhoods and enclaves, Keihanshin is in fact three separate cities, and each has an identity of its own.

Kyoto, where I visited last year with my parents, is home to Japan’s most concentrated collection of cultural landmarks. Japan’s former capitol, it is dominated by its own history, to the point that anyone looking for the funky, technological chic that defines Japan’s contemporary image is sure to be disappointed.

For those hoping for a more modern Japanese experience, Osaka beckons. Japan’s second city until the 1980s (when it was passed by Yokohama, a suburb of Tokyo), Osaka was for many years the lynchpin of Japan’s economy, an industrial city that played a key role in the country’s Meiji-era push towards modernization and a center of national trade before that. In recent years, Osaka’s outsized role in the Japanese economy has been somewhat reduced, though it remains the working hub of the region, as a daytime influx of workers arriving from other parts of Keihanshin swells the city’s population by almost half.

This preamble, however, speaks little to why I visited Osaka last month: that would be food and fun. Although some food writers now regard Tokyo as the food capitol of the world (with apologies to Paris), in the minds of many Japanese, Osaka is where appetites go to be sated. Two of the country’s best-loved foods, takoyaki and okonomiyaki, are local delicacies in Osaka. Sushi, Japan’s national dish and most recognized international symbol, may not have been invented in Osaka, but one of its important innovations was: the first kaitenzushi restaurant, or conveyor-belt sushi shop, was opened in Osaka in 1958, pioneering a model that has since made sushi a far more affordable meal.

As for fun, only Tokyo and Fukuoka can claim a nightlife scene as fun or vibrant. If workers flock to Osaka from the around the region during the day, pleasure-seekers from Kyoto, Kobe, and elsewhere replace them at night. Doutonburi, a nightlife district in the Minami neighborhood, is choked with revelers on weekend nights, as hundreds of people line up outside famous food stalls and izakayas under the light of the Glico running man, one of the city’s much-photographed landmarks.

Although lacking the breadth of Kyoto, Osaka is not without its historical monuments. Chief among them is Osaka-jo, Japan’s second-largest castle (behind Himeji-jo). In some ways, it’s easy to take a “seen one, seen ’em all” attitude towards Japanese castles, since they do bear distinct architectural similarities to one another. However, having now visited two of Japan’s major castles, I can assure you such blase is unwarranted.

Kumamoto-jo, which I visited last year, is a beautiful specimen, with some original buildings still intact. However, its place in history pales in comparison with Osaka-jo, which can claim few if any original buildings because of its role as the setting of many of Japan’s legendary battles. Thanks to Osaka’s longstanding economic importance and its proximity to Japan’s former and present capitols, the grounds of Osaka-jo have been graced by the giants of Japanese military history: the battles between the Houses of Toyotomi and Ieyasu, two of the great families responsible for unifying Japan, took place there.

Ironically, one of Osaka’s iconic symbols, the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, is actually located in neighboring Kobe. Although the team was known as the Osaka Tigers until 1961, its home ballpark, Koshien Stadium, has been in Kobe since its erection in 1924.  Koshien is Japan’s best-loved baseball stadium, one of only three natural grass stadiums in use by major league teams in Japan. While ordinarily the Tigers home-field, the stadium also hosts annual high school baseball championships in the spring and summer which attract as much if not more attention than the professional Japan Series.

For a seasoned baseball fan like myself, it’s easy to dismiss Japanese professional ball as a watered-down version of the American product, because on the field, that’s exactly what it is. Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is flush with cast-offs from the Majors Leagues, guys like Matt Murton, Wladimir Balentien, and Lastings Milledge, all of whom I saw play when I visited Koshien to take in a Tigers game against the Yakult Swallows of Tokyo. In doing so, though, you risk missing out on the signature pleasure of baseball in Japan: the atmosphere.

Last year, I went to see an exhibition game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Oakland A’s at the Tokyo Dome. While the game was fun, my first taste of Japanese baseball, it had the flavor of something between a spring training game and an all-star, and it was clear the crowd didn’t know quite how to behave.

A league game at Koshien, where the Hanshin fans have a reputation as Japan’s most loyal and vociferous, was quite another matter. The crowd didn’t just know how to behave–they turned cheering into choreography.

For those who have never been to a Major League Baseball in the U.S., there are two types of cheering: rooting and heckling. Depending on the crowd, the opponent, and the score, at an MLB game there is usually a healthy dose of both, though the hecklers are often louder and more insistent. Chants coming from one section or another are common enough, but they are typically short-lived and impromptu, coming in between individuals screaming their mind at the right fielder.

At Koshien, there is a specific chant for every player, and every fan knows it. During every home at bat, the entire stadium roars its support in unison, but when the visitors are up, the crowd becomes quiet. It didn’t appear to me that heckling the opposition ever crossed their minds. And certainly, heckling a Tiger was completely out of the question. I know this because when Murton, the former Cubs washout, bungled an easy play and allowed a run to score, those in the section around me merely shook their heads in mute disbelief. This does not happen to Jacoby Ellsbury in Fenway Park.

After the game, I got to see some of downtown Kobe and the beautiful area around its port, much of which was rebuilt in the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake which devastated the city. By the port, my friends and I happened across a German beer festival, where dozens of Kobeans in lederhosen danced the polka and pounded schnitzels. A testament to the cosmopolitan nature of Kansai if ever there was one.

Nara, Japan’s first capitol (prior even to Kyoto), was also on the itinerary. Though not a part of Keihanshin, the home of Todaiji–the biggest wooden building in the world, inside of which is the biggest wooden statue in the world–is only a 40-minute train ride away. Aside from the monuments of wood, Nara is famous for its deer, hundreds of which live as wild (if extremely docile) animals in the park nearby.

Though today it exists in Tokyo’s ever-growing international shadow, in many ways, Kansai remains the Japan best-loved by the Japanese. And for good reason.

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