Week 7: Welcomes and Farewells

As I sit down to write this, for the first time, I feel left without words.

How do I describe the elation, the anxiety, the tears, the sheer emotional rush of this week?

In a week where every day deserves its own blog, where do I even start?

Maybe a story will help.

A foreign girl is sprinting through the suburban streets of Saitama like she’s trying to chase the cars on the freeway beside her. She looks down at her phone before skidding to a stop and turning in front of a Shell (the first gas station she’s seen in Japan). She’s more than an hour late to a dinner date with a friend, but even though Google Maps proclaims that she’s arrived at her destination, neither friend nor restaurant are to be found. She swipes open a new app and sends off a series of texts, but the phone dies within minutes.

Glancing around in search of an outlet, she notices a small bar/restaurant across the street and heads towards it, trying to keep her composure together.

“Please help me,” she asks the two patrons in Japanese when she walks in the door, not knowing what else to say.

The woman gets up from her table and rushes to get the owner in the back room, who looks worried at this strange foreign girl who’s trying not to have a breakdown in the middle of his restaurant.

“Cellphone…” She nervously trails off and gestures to the cellphone in one hand and the charger in the other.

The owner nods in understanding and lets her sit down at a table next to an outlet. Meanwhile, the other patron sitting at the bar counter turns around and gives her a reassuring smile. He asks if she’s Filipina, to which she replies that her mom is from the Philippines. He then asks where she’s from, and the girl tries her best to carry on a conversation with the little Japanese she knows.

“Your Japanese is great!” the woman tells her. The man adds that she’s so “Kirei? Bijin?” He looks to the other two for help before exclaiming, “Beautiful!” With her runny nose and puffy red eyes, it doesn’t feel like an accurate description, but she appreciates their kind words all the same.

The owner comes out with a can of soda, similar to Sprite, which she gratefully sips while waiting for her phone to charge. Once she feels confident that she has enough battery to get her back to the station, she gets up and approaches the owner.

“Um… how much…?” she begins, holding the empty soda can.

The owner smiles and waves aside her question, while the male patron says in English, “Don’t worry! We’re friends!”

The simple kindness in that statement moves her to tears again, and she bows to the owner, repeating “arigatou gozaimashita” over and over until she’s well out the door.

Given the general industriousness of the Japanese people and their collectivist society, I think it’s easy to assume that making friends with foreigners is a difficult task. And while there are many cultural barriers to overcome, the power of Japan’s welcoming spirit is overwhelming, as is the readiness to form close, personal bonds with people.

It’s why I can’t be mad at some of the Technos students who chose to stay out until the wee hours of the morning singing karaoke or drinking at an izakaya with the International Week visitors. As both faculty and student representatives remarked during their speeches at the farewell party on Friday, the college welcomed the visitors wholeheartedly, despite being little more than strangers. With the number of students who cried as they hugged the visiting students for the last time, you wouldn’t believe that just two weeks ago, they barely knew each other’s names. So much of this year’s International Week was restructured so that the visitors would spend more time getting to know the Technos students through class visits, games, scavenger hunts throughout Tokyo, and other activities, and judging by the number of hugs, pictures, and exchanged social media tags, those efforts were a resounding success.

While I didn’t get as much quality time with the visitors as the students did, I was lucky enough to go with some of them on a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka City. Known best for animated films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and other titles by acclaimed visionary Hayao Miyazaki, the studio has a museum that is just as imaginative as its films. Pictures aren’t allowed inside the museum itself, so I can only describe the cozy pastel colors, the stain-glass windows dedicated to beloved Ghibli characters, the spiral staircases that make you feel like you’re on the cusp of discovering a magical world, the homely exhibition rooms crammed with paraphernalia in order to replicate an animator’s workspace, and all the little details that went into such a lovingly-designed tribute to Studio Ghibli.

While not an animator myself, I was dazzled by the walls plastered with storyboards and character designs that highlight the effort and attention to detail that goes into just seconds of film. Before the days of digital coloring, animators needed to meticulously label the specific colors of each character and setting, taking into account whether the scene was in bright or dim lighting, and then sort through hundreds of labelled paint jars just to get the correct shade!

I also loved how on a bookshelf next to an animator’s desk, there were reference guides on nearly every subject imaginable, from crystal patterns to airplane motors, so that the animator can capture the details as accurately as possible. I can only imagine how humbling it must be for someone to dedicate so much research to details that may only be on screen for a few seconds, and it really helped me further appreciate the work that animators do.

While at the Ghibli Museum, I also had the pleasure of chatting with Professor Emeritus Brian Rogers from Pembroke College, whose research in psychology concerns depth perception, illusion, and other matters pertaining to optics. In addition to his insights on the various exhibits, I also gained some reassuring advice about life at Pembroke and an open invitation to ask any questions in the months leading up to my arrival.

This week also brought the opportunity to learn new things from students. On Thursday, two Technos students came to my house and showed me how to make okonomiyaki, a pancake made from eggs, a special flour, cabbage, and meat, with various sauces on top. It was super fun to make, and we ended up cooking way too much, so we all ended up with plenty of leftovers for lunch the next day. šŸ™‚

This week, I felt so grateful for the welcome that I have received here, and now, I was finally given the opportunity to welcome someone else to Japan. This weekend, I visited the Imperial Palace, the Ueno Zoo, and a hedgehog cafe in Akihabara, but by far my favorite part of my weekend was my Sunday afternoon exploring Shimo-Kitazawa with my friend Tatum, who started her Freeman Asia internship in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Shimo-Kitazawa is this fascinating little hipster neighborhood, with tons of coffee shops and vintage clothing stores, all with a completely unique vibe. Every place we went reflected so many different places and eras, from a coffee shop with American records from the 50s on its walls and a Beatles shrine in the corner, to a thrift store with a laughably bizarre assortment of limp stuffed animals, crochet coat hangers, and a chandelier with glass pegs all hanging from the ceiling. It was so delightful to wander around the stores, then sit down for dinner to swap stories and first impressions of Tokyo. As my time in Japan dwindles, I know there are more hidden gems like Shimo-Kitazawa that I won’t have the chance to visit, but I’m so grateful for the places I have been, the people I’ve met there, and all the wonderful memories I’ve made.

I could keep rambling about my insane weekend, but I think I’ll cut it off here for now and just leave some bonus photos down below. Stay tuned for my final blog from Japan, coming next week!


One thought on “Week 7: Welcomes and Farewells

  1. Thanks for the great picks of flowers, beautiful parks, zoo animals, and, especially, the hedgehog. (Mental note: play “The Hedgehog Song” for Rachel.) I’m sorry your wonderful time in Japan is coming to an end, but I am looking forward to seeing you!


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