Falling for Japan

Outside, most of the leaves are dark green, heavy and wet with mist. Here on October 15, however, some of them are starting to catch fire. It hasn’t happened all at once, though. Some are bright—burnished and burned like a gold kettle left on the hob too long. Others are speckled emerald and red with brown filigree—butterflies fluttering as the last raindrops from the passing shower tap their wings. It’ll be weeks before the rest of the trees start to glow, but it’s October and fall has found me again.DSC_0008.jpg

At my core, I’m a homebody, but like most avid readers and writers, I have a steamer trunk in the corner of my soul that demands colorful labels from foreign lands with beautiful names. Travel is like a good cup of tea: bracing, refreshing, and holding the power to completely change your perspective on the world. I’ve always known about this steamer trunk—my mom and dad gave it to me when I was very little by taking our family on trips, going to new places, encouraging us kids to venture out when we had the chance to go on choir tours or mission trips. I already had pen pals from other countries: C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, Hergé, and others. I read their letters over and over.

One summer, my family took a trip to the United Kingdom, and I went overseas for the first time. As we explored ancient castles, strolled the streets, and ambled over moors, I couldn’t help but feel I’d be back. Now, a few years and a few trips later, I know there’s a part of my heart that I took out of its tissue paper maps and left up in those heather-covered highlands.

This fall, I’m in Japan, the country that’s home to the other half of my wanderlust heart. I’d never had pen pals from this country, but several years ago, I started to fall in love with its culture, its colors, and its customs. Four years ago, I arrived at Narita Airport, and not long after that, I found I loved its people, too.

I’m a short-term volunteer for a handful of weeks at a school and conference center that I attended as a student those four years ago. They’re always in need of people to roll up their sleeves, and since that’s how I usually wear mine, I’ve been thinking of trying to get back here since I left it. Graduate school and life changes kept me away longer than I thought, but this fall, I have a unique window—a gift of time that allows me to give time to someone else.

Pushing a broom and suds around maybe isn’t quite the romantic ideal of Japan most people might imagine when it comes to autumn here. These last mornings have made our floors feel like ice-skating rinks, but Mount Fuji, seemingly close enough to be a neighbor, doesn’t even have snow on it yet. The leaves are only beginning to change. But the changes are there if you look closely enough, if you stand in one place for a moment longer than you usually would.

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to travel with two of my greatest friends and explore the country. We climbed up the slippery stone steps of shrines with grandparents and gazed in awe at carved gates that entire centuries have passed through. We queued for the underground with joking school kids and tipped in the wake of bullet trains with salary men, all the while enjoying a journey together. We ate conveyor belt sushi with other good friends who are now living here as missionaries. In the laughter and joy of reunion under the neon lights of Ikebukuro, we fulfilled a dream that we’d all meet in Japan someday. It turned out someday wasn’t as far away as we thought. The trip was a whirl of color and people, kimono and ceremonies. There is so much to write about those days—I’ll have to do better soon!

As the three of us leaned over matcha tea bowls in the oldest tea house in Kyoto, I caught a glimpse of that part of my heart that I left here.

I’m finding autumn is a different thing in different parts of the world, but it’s still full of the beautiful, small changes that are so exciting during the turn of a season. Mornings are crisper and make a feather duvet even harder to escape. Trees and ferns soften in the slanting, 4 o’clock sunlight that comes earlier every afternoon to spark embers in the leaves. Someone was burning wood nearby one evening, and though that brisk aroma is mixed with more cedar or more Japanese pine, it still makes me feel like I’ve stepped into a favorite book. There is more rain and more creepy crawlies wanting to come in and get warm, too, but it’s autumn here as well.

I was afraid my Japanese would be as poor as it had been four years ago, but this time, the words were familiar shapes and sounds, like the handwriting and voice of a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. My language skills are far from elegant or even passable for an elementary school kid, but looking back to what I knew four years ago feels like pulling out the first story I ever scrawled with markers. This is just another one of the things that tells me I’m here again in a different season.

In the midst of dusting, washing dishes, and vacuuming tatami mats, I hope to realize what other changes might be happening while I move through the motions of days that look very different from the ones back home. I don’t have as much time for writing or reading as I might have hoped, but there are so many bright minutes here, conversations with the other staff members, the town’s music floating over the trees at noon and six, the tidy regime of trash bins lined up outside of 7-Eleven, the wake of a boat rushing onto the black sand beach of Lake Yamanaka. When I’ve gotten a few minutes to look back at my own words, if I really look, I think I see that, like the leaves outside, the edges of my pages are starting to look different.

Not all at once, but maybe in a little while, they’ll turn, too.

In the meantime, the lid of my steamer trunk is thrown back while I gather keepsakes from Tuesday ESL classes, the trees in Nikko, karaoke in the van to Fujiyoshida, and the thousand other things that grow even more dear with thought. It’s too soon yet to know what I will bring home with me from Japan, but I’m sure it will fit somewhere beside the silver necklace heavy with charms, the tiny jade bear, the Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, and the kokeshi dolls nestled in a kilt.

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