Sunday, 3 July 2016

Almost five years ago, I boarded a plane headed to Amsterdam, dashed through Schipol airport and boarded another bound for Kansai International Airport in Osaka. I sat in an aisle seat in a row of three, with an empty seat between me and a young Japanese woman – we smiled at each other and shared the empty seat to store our various bits and pieces. I think she borrowed a pen from me towards the end of the flight. When we landed, I was hit by a blast of hot, humid air and spent a long time waiting to go through customs. There were sniffer dogs and security and as usual, I felt nervous even though I had nothing to hide.

When I finally got through and began searching for my taxi I, I didn’t have a clue where to go and within seconds a kindly old man checked a map and walked with me to the right spot. The drive was a blur, and I arrived at my international dorm at around 11am. I remember seeing a group of other students on their way out – I got to know them a little better later, but they weren’t to become my close friends – and I was greeted with warm, open arms by the dorm managers, an older Japanese couple for whom we were their first batch of residents. It was nearly 40 degrees Celsius and they gave me hot green tea, and I worried that they were judging me for my tired, poor language skills.  I can still recall being horribly aware of the sweat dripping off my top lip.

I don’t remember much of the dorm rules and the tour as explained to me by my floor’s I-House buddy, but I do remember not wasting any time and immediately making my way down to the supermarket for provisions. I got lost on my way back, and had to ask three separate people for directions. One was walking her terrier dog.

Pieces of my time in Kyoto are hazier now, but there are so many that I still remember with such clarity, as though it were only yesterday. I remember hanging out with a group of the girls for the first time in the early days, sitting on a not-so-comfy sofa with a pink throw on the seat cushions, looking at beauty magazines and laughing with the girl who would become my best friend, my soul mate. I remember communicating the words for ice to a dorm buddy on behalf of another soon-to-be good friend who’d been bitten by a mosquito and reacted badly to the bite.

The thought of the sights and smells around where I lived make my heart ache; even after all this time I could still retrace my route from the dorm to the university. I can still hear the evening chirps of cicadas and the roar of heavy rain on the metal bike shed roof outside my window.  I can still see the cherry blossom petals being washed away by the river opposite our dorm, where I once saw a child excitedly exclaim: ‘It’s so high!’ as the abnormally swelling river thundered past after a sudden summer typhoon. I didn’t realise until months after typhoon season that ‘typhoon’ was another word for hurricane, and that we’d all been casually going about our usual business in the midst of several. Apparently there were earthquakes during my time there too, but I never noticed them.

The route to university took us through traditional-looking streets of homes and shops, where odours that I can barely sum up the words to describe often hung. Explaining a scent to someone who’s never experienced it is difficult, but I’d know those smells in an instant, and at times the steam and scent of good, pure green teas takes me back to those odours mingling with the sticky, summer air. Sometimes we would walk through a temple, one that I’ve since seen in fleeting moments on TV and yearned to return to. There was a house where an old man and his wise-looking golden retriever would often sit outside together, and would greet us every morning when we passed.

 All of these things were my reality once, now they’re just natsukashii.  Nostalgic, missed.

My year abroad wasn’t all a joyous one – my mental health made it as difficult a time as it was rewarding. I struggled with homesickness and depression, and after a cycling accident at the end of the year only days before I was to return home I feared what I would do if I wasn’t able to go back when I so desperately needed to.  I was relieved to leave Japan behind me and breathed a sigh of relief when my plane took off.  It took me a long time to reconcile with it, to let go of the bad experiences and the sadness and to embrace the hope and wonder and friendship I found there instead.

Nearly five years on, I think about going back often. I want to visit my dorm managers – who were so selfless and cared for all of us as if we were their own children. I want to visit the cute, little bakeries that I used to frequent; to hop on a train from Hanazono into Kyoto city centre; to find the beautiful, silent temple where we saw a feral cat in Kobe; to feel the crisp, early spring morning air of Miyajima at the crack of dawn. For all the struggles that I had there, for a time, it was my home. Gyoumu was the first thing to pop into my head when I thought of a supermarket, I always looked forward to my evening bath in our communal ofuro, my dorm room was what I pictured when I thought of home.

I met my best friend there – she once said that we leave a piece of ourselves in all of the places that we live.

Somewhere, lost in the streets of Kyoto, there’s a piece of me.

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