2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!
There is nothing comparable to immersing yourself in a foreign culture. For our twenty-first installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of fall 2016 Joseph Erobha, and discover how the food, the people, even the transportation in Japan changed him forever – and why he encourages others that studied abroad to be the change our world needs.
When I went to Japan, history was palpable, it could be seen; it could be felt. It is nothing too distant or too ephemeral, it is right there before your eyes. It is in the face of the Jizo watching over the wishes of children. It is in the traditional kimonos that come out for every festival. It is in the taste of the ramen, cooked just as it was for many a generation. Japan is the meeting point between the ancient and the future. From a Cairo Pizza Hut you can view the Pyramids of Giza. Well, from many a convenience store you can spot Hikone Castle, its tiled roofs and wooden beams preserved just as they were upon construction. Even the convenience stores are a marvel, with so much food to make America pale in comparison. Indeed, the very same Kyoto that holds many of Japan’s most elegant shrines and temples, also holds a collection of every costume worn by the Red Power Ranger.
There’s so much to see and many ways to do so. I know now why Murakami Haruki’s Tsukuru Tazaki so enjoyed watching the trains, they are the veins that carry blood all throughout the nation. The trains are clean, convenient, and bring everything close. You will get lost, we’ve all been lost, but in doing so you find new places to explore. I was once wandering aimlessly through the country roads of Nara and came upon a bamboo forest, the plants towering over me like skyscrapers. And wherever trains can’t take you, bicycles surely can. You can easily ride your bicycle anywhere. I cycled around Sekigahara, the great battle paving the way for Tokugawa rule, essentially the Gettysburg of Japan. I saw the spot where the heads of many samurai were counted and I saw the tall trees where they hid. I could almost see the ghost of Mifune Toshiro trudging up one of the hills.
Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyoto are big cities, but nature is never far off. In spring, the sakura (cherry blossoms) fall off into the air, but it is in autumn where the trees reveal their true color. There were so many leaves of sharp yellow and bright crimson. Autumn evening was best in the Hikone Castle gardens. The trees were alight with color and the pools of water became liquid mirrors. They were mirrors so clear that you were tempted, like Alice, to step through them. Indeed, nature was a spiritual place. Every stone, tree, and brook is enthused with spirit, and in every corner, a shrine. The shrines are reminders that nature is a home. The gate is a reminder that you enter. The finest shrine of them all was Fushimi Inari, in Kyoto, where a near endless trail of orange torii leads you to the summit of Inariyama. While walking through, you are enveloped in its orange hue. The trail is a trial of body and mind that brings you wa.
You must always maintain wa, the peace of everything. The wa of conversation. The wa of your room. The wa of the bath. The wa is made real in the Japanese gardens. Visit one and you will know why Buddhism was able marry with Shinto. They both respect the wa of nature. The Buddha achieved enlightenment under the wa of the Bo tree. The Buddha’s first sermon was in the wa of Sarnath’s Deer Park. One of Japan’s greatest daibutsu (large Buddha statues) rests sagely in Nara’s own deer park. The deer run freely, unafraid of people. There is wa all over.
Too many from the U.S. see Japan as an exotic creature, a caricature, an animal to be gawked at in a zoo. Through such a glass darkly, they miss the people. I made many friends in Japan. The time we spent together, however broken my Japanese, made for the best of my journey. There are times when the world can feel very lonely, especially when you are so far from home. However, my new friends in Japan made me feel most welcome. I thank them. I must also thank my host family, who graciously let me live in their home for a weekend. We shared meals, we went to festivals, and we had many conversations. They let me bathe in the evening and they also gave me lots of green tea. If your bladder is not accustomed to tea so frequently, you’ll be in and out of the bathroom constantly. I was reminded of Charles Darwin, who on his voyage of the Beagle, could eat only the spicy beef offered by the Indians, and nearly died of thirst. I also relied on the kindness of strangers. I speak now of those who helped me make sense of a map or get on the right train car, even when they had no business doing so. I think of them often. I would lastly like to thank JCMU for hosting my education. The stern professors and the hard-working staff made all of this possible. I hope to make them proud and their efforts well-rewarded. Of course, travel is not always a smooth exercise. I made my share of missteps, we all do, but from them we can learn. I can only hope that I showed those I met in Japan the same measure of respect, humility, and grace that they showed to me.
In his autobiography, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that love “relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable abyss.” It is that loneliness that breeds distrust, fear, and prejudice. For those of us lucky enough to know another language, we must be the healers. It is we, the translators and the interpreters, who try to make the world less lonely, less afraid, and less close-minded. It is we who try to build a bridge of dreams across the abyss to a bed of carnations. It is we who try to forge the canals that make it easier for love to spread, and be felt. It is our duty to strengthen the friendship between peoples, and help us to realize our common humanity. For Japan is not a “swamp”, as Inoue told Rodriguez in Endo’s Silence, but a whirlpool. Not Charybdis, but uzumaki. An uzumaki that swirls all things together and makes then into a fluid, ever-evolving shape.