As our time dwindles, we’re rushing to do the things we’d have done if we’d been in Japan on vacation but never did because we live here full-time. It’s a beautiful day outside? That’s nice – I’m tired and I’ve got to go to the dry cleaner. The list of “Never Done”s is long and baleful: Climb Mt. Fuji. Snorkel in Okinawa. Throw snowballs in Hokkaido. Eat crab in Mie. Fear for float-hoisters’ lives during Kenka Matsuri. Watch boys in loin cloths fight over penis amulets. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. We try to focus on “Will Finally Do”s instead. Today we’re in Kyoto to visit our buddy from training, Sir Steve. It isn’t just sightseeing we need to indulge in before we go; it’s quality time with friends and each other, too.
So we’re taking the train. We’re shuffling through the gravelly paths to catch the temples before they close. We’re trying to see all of Ryoanji Temple’s 15 rocks at the same time, despite the knowledge that it’s impossible. We’re pointing out the tight, nubile flower buds on the trees. We’re discouraging Sean from dashing rocks into the tranquil temple lake to see if the sleeping pair of ducks are real or just decoys. We’re playing Japanese word games. We’re in the tonkatsu restaurant, using wooden pestles to grind the handful of sesame seeds in our ceramic bowls to make a lovely dipping sauce for our deep fried pork cutlets. We’re sharing a frosty glass canister of sweetly perfumed sake. We’re catching up on what our other friends from training have been doing – who’s still in Japan, who’s going home. We’re still pointing out the differences in American, British, and Irish English; even after 2 years, it delights us to no end. Sir Steve still says “luuuuva,” Sean still can’t pronounce “th” properly and I will always, always instinctively spell “color” without a “u.”
A curious thing is happening as my time here winds down; I’m seeing beauty where I saw none before. Not that I’ve ever been blind to Japan’s obvious beauties – of course Kinkakuji and sakura trees are enchanting. What I mean is that I’m suddenly seeing beauty here in the romantic, soulful way I’ve always been attracted to brick English country houses blanketed by the stealth creep of ivy. I wasn’t one of the many Westerners who came to Japan because of their lifelong love affairs with its arts, architecture and culture; my decision to move here was fueled by a mixture of rabid wanderlust, a desire for a total change of perspective, and the promise of an ample paycheck. Unlike Bob, I was never fascinated enough by the Japanese language to major in it. Unlike Sean, I wasn’t seduced by karate at a young age. I had, however, been obsessed with sushi ever since I first tried it at the age of 17 and, through my beloved friend Momo, learned to appreciate various aspects of Japanese culture. It was Momo who introduced me to curry rice, Momo who gave me my first Girls’ Day treats, and Momo who first called me “E-chan.” Alas, despite the intermittent exposure to the virus, Japan-fever never truly seeped into my blood.
When I arrived, my excitement was fueled mainly by the idea of being immersed in a culture that was so wholly different from my own. I immediately found that very little in my new surroundings moved me. To be fair, Osaka Prefecture is known for lacking visual panache but even when I visited its more idyllic neighbors I was rarely excited. Instead, I wondered why almost all houses had to be some dull shade of gray. I grew irritated by the innumerable hordes of electrical pylon towers that seemed to mar almost every foot of the Japanese landscape. I was unimpressed by the neon cacophony of the Pachinko parlor-overrun shotengai and uninterested, too, in the severity of the sleek, “modern” skyscrapers. Not being Buddhist, Shinto, or schooled in Japanese history, I found that all temples looked alike to me, even if I could, naturally, appreciate the curves of their roofs and the tranquility of their bamboo and stone fountains. Even if I was occasionally impressed by something in my surroundings, such moments were brief. In my time here, I’ve absolutely been indelibly impressed by the wackiness of my “fish out of water” experience but had yet to feel that wistful tugging at my heartstrings when I gazed upon a landscape or building.
How is it that Osaka’s standard-issue apartment mansions and houses once seemed like a squat army of stone toads to me? I’m now endeared to their crisp angles and charmed by their desperate attempts at creating gardens by artfully arranging dozens of potted plants by their front doors. I smile at the socks and t-shirts waving as I pass by their balconies. Down the street, I’m finally soothed by the sight of a steel-gray temple roof peeking above a forbidding concrete wall. I’m now comforted by the knowledge that the florescent hum of a conbini will always be a stone’s throw away. I’ve always loved the sakura, but for the first time their delicate pink buds thrill me even more than the curving embrace of European ivy. I envision my final days in Japan dropping away one by one; fragile and fleeting like their petals.
These sudden rushes of affection are more than likely last gasps, caused by mounting separation anxiety. Time will only tell if my newfound appreciation of Japan’s aesthetics is inspired by growing to love the country rather than idealizing the things and people I will leave behind. Until then, I am happily cubbyholed in my adorable wood-and-cardboard Japanese apartment; typing in graceful seiza position and dreaming of my next batch of homemade tempura.