「縁があるんだよ」: Two stories of “fated” encounters

Before I talk about my summer experiences with Japanese transportation as well as my language course, I want to take this time to talk about an important and amazing Japanese word: 縁, or en.

「縁がある」、en ga aru, or “to have en” is to have a destined connection with someone. Be it coincidence or fate, an unintended meeting has resulted in a special or 大切な relationship.

The first time I encountered this experience and the word en was when I studied at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka in 2011:

The summer between my semesters abroad, I decided to invite a Japanese friend to go see a taiko happyokai (taiko recital or concert) with performances by various classes in Kyoto’s “Taiko Center” school. At that happyokai I saw my first eisaa performance. エイサー、or Eisaa is a traditional Okinawan performance art, including dance, music, and Okinawan handheld taiko, and is the Okinawan equivalent to mainland Japan’s Bon-Odori, or “dance of Obon”. Obon is the Japanese festival of the dead, and likewise Eisaa was traditionally performed to honor the dead. Obon in Japan just ended yesterday, August 16th.

This is a sidetrack! I saw my first eisaa taiko performance, fell in love, and went on to study eisaa in Japan until after returning to Oberlin. Then for the rest of my college career I studied the Okinawan conflict with the Japanese and American governments over the US military bases and aircraft that occupy the island today. (My senior Capstone paper was on this subject!)

Still sidetracked. After seeing this concert and becoming interested in Eisaa, one day I was biking from Gaidai to my sharehouse (dorm-like apartment) and passed by a group of five or six people doing eisaa in front of Hirakata Station. Although they did not have much of an audience, I decided to double back and watch. After they finished, I decided to ask them about their activities. Long story short, from then on I befriended the members of the group, and through the leader, elementary school teacher Honda-san, met another important friend Matsumura-san, a sanshin (3-stringed snake-skinned banjo type instrument, the Okinawan shamisen) teacher who has never been seen in anything other than traditional yukata and geta (sandals). Throughout the rest of that semester Matsumura-san taught me much about Japan, Japanese language, about Okinawa, about people, and about life. He was the one who taught me about en, or a fated relationship.

If I hadn’t doubled around to speak with Honda-san and her eisaa companions, I never would have met Matsumura-san, and I would never have been able to proceed with my Okinawan research as far as I did.

Honda-san's students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Honda-san’s students performing in the Hirakata City Eisaa Festival.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

Matsumura-san invited me to his sanshin class. He also taught me in a tiny Okinawan restaurant near Gaidai.

And now for my second story. Coincidentally, it takes place around the time of Obon.

As you read in my last post, I had a rough first week in my apartment. One night after meeting a friend in Tokyo for a farewell lunch (she just finished one year of teaching for JET in Aomori), I caught the end of the Fuchinobe (town) Obon festival just to realize that the free Obirin shuttle I usually took home was no longer running. Unsure of where the public buses ran and unwilling to pay for a taxi, I decided to walk home. I’d never done it before, and was told by Lissette that it would take about 30 minutes. I was dead tired from a long day and lack of sleep (caused by trauma from the first cockroach). I wanted to fall into a bed (or some hole) rather than walk even ten minutes home.

As I was walking home feeling exhausted and lonely, I’d reached the halfway point when I heard the sound of taiko in the distance.

I was drawn to the sound of taiko like the giant, dumb bugs outside are drawn to my building’s lamps. (Cute, right?) I followed the sound down a narrow road and was shocked when it opened up to not just a temple, but an entire Obon festival with men, women, and children in yukata.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

Imagining stumbling from a deserted road onto a scene like this.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

I honestly thought the police were coming to stop the party and the noise. They actually came to join in the last dances.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

These kids had a fun time running around before joining the dance.

Emotionally I’d been completely revived. I was happy and excited. Although a dancing, yukata-clad obaasan (older woman) gestured for me to join the dance, bone-deep exhaustion led me to politely decline with a wave of a hand and an apologetic bow of my head. After the very last dance (they seemed to have a “last dance” about three times), I approached the man playing the taiko to ask him about where and with whom he played. After telling him I would be teaching at Obirin for two years, he told me he had to leave but introduced me to a man who lived in the neighborhood, Suzuki-san.

After talking excitedly for a while and introducing me to others in the neighborhood (as almost everyone but me was from the neighborhood), Suzuki-san introduced me to his daughter Satomi who studied and worked in the US for about 10 years- and had also been standing right near me the entire time I was there. (I almost tried approaching her beforehand, but was too tired.) Turns out she teaches shime-daiko (small taiko) to young children every Sunday.

The Suzuki family then brought me to their house for tea and traditional snacks. I was taken in like a stray cat. Usually you should never ever go home with people you just met, but I had a sense that these two people were special, and realized I was right when I saw their beautiful and enormous traditional house, with a large yard and garden. The warm and genki Suzuki-san says he’s seventy, but looks so youthful that it’s impossible to believe. He is a retired teacher (or professor?) and likes to grow his own vegetables. His wife, Satomi-san’s mother, passed away a few years ago from illness. She was an amazing woman and a social worker who was so influential she won an award of recognition from the Japanese Minister of Welfare. They set up a small Buddhist shrine to her in their traditional Japanese tatami room, complete with a large picture, offerings, and incense. After fun conversation and feeding me yatai stand yakisoba (fried noodles), traditional snacks, and tea, they drove me home with a full bag of home-grown vegetables.

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I ate the cucumbers raw, without cutting them up or anything. The bag of popcorn was plopped into my hands by the festival’s popcorn seller without me even asking for any.

Today I visited them again and once again was filled with tea and snacks. They had a total of six different guests come in and out throughout my stay to pay respects to Satomi’s mother and to give post-Obon gifts. They took time to help me figure out my internet situation in my apartment, then sent me home with another bag of goods:  This time, canned peaches, a Madeleine cake, mini tomatoes, and an apple.

If I hadn’t missed my bus, decided to walk home, stumbled into the temple celebration, and called out to the taiko player, I wouldn’t have met and befriended such amazing people. Like two years ago, this could just have been a series of great coincidences, or it could be because of my love for taiko. Or maybe en really exists.

夏の旅の終わり: The end of summer travels (for now)

So remember that time I wished my emotions could take a break? Well, immediately afterwards my body decided that it needed a break too and totally shut down on me for a few days, starting as soon as we arrived at our friend’s place in Yokohama. That was a lovely reunion. I spent two days mostly in bed nose-blowing up a storm, but got better just in time to spend a night and day in beautiful 箱根 Hakone. Because it’s quite far from Yokohama, we didn’t do much the first day but rest, but we did stay at this nice, very old ryokan at the foot of the mountains along a very narrow, winding road and next to a stream. While it had Western beds, it also had a segment of the room with tatami floors, a low table and zaisu (low chair with no legs), as well as snacks , a hot water kettle, and tea.

our room

our room

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

the Japanese section of our room, complete with two types of tea and jelly snacks

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fancy nabe (hotpot) dinner!

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wearing a yukata to dinner! It was lovely except for when I accidentally dipped the sleeve in sauce while reaching for food in the nabe hotpot…

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

pensively (tiredly) looking outside before our breakfast arrived.

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the next day’s breakfast!

There were also two indoor public baths downstairs, which became private after 10pm. It was beautiful, but the water was so hot! I got out only after a few minutes to avoid getting dizzy. I’d have to go more often to get used to it.

Cue Flashback: I still remember vividly the first time I went to a public bath when I studied in Osaka during high school. It took all of my willpower to prevent a mini anxiety attack about stripping down in front of other people, including the one other American ryugakusei exchange student.

For those who aren’t aware of the custom: Before taking a bath in Japan, one is supposed to wash up with shampoo and soap, usually while sitting on a small stool. In public baths there are rows of stools and mirrors with showerheads, shampoo, and bodywash. The first time I tried cleaning myself with the showerhead, I was scolded gently by Noriko-san, a woman in my group who remains my friend today, for spraying water around and behind me. So I would not be a meiwaku (nuisance) to others, I became more conscious of bathers around me and more deliberate with the direction of the shower head.

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In the summer, Hakone is filled with blooming ajisai (hydrangea bushes).

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Pirate ship! We got to ride a red one later as part of a “course” that included this pirate ship ride, a “ropeway” ride up the mountain, a cable car ride down the mountain, and a train back to the station..

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Towards the top of Mt. Hakone near Owakudani Station, where it smells strongly of sulfur. Stores in Owakudani produce famous “black eggs”, which are boiled in volcanic waters and are said to increase longevity.

After Hakone, Ken and I returned to Yokohama for a few nights, the last during which we tried to have a nice bar-be-que on our friend Josh’s balcony (4th floor with no elevator..) only to be poured on as soon as they finally got the flame going.

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You did good, Josh! Took forever to light that tiny grill too!

Despite being unable to finish grilling, Josh saved the night by whipping up some delicious dishes in a frenzy, followed by card games conducted mostly in Japanese for our Japanese friend. I had fun teaching everyone the game BS and learning the rules of Poker. Unsurprisingly, Ken has the best Poker face! Surprisingly, he was also the best of us by far… I, on the other hand, managed to win Crazy Eights about five times total. One of my prouder achievements. 🙂

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn't grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

Everything was delicious. Items you wouldn’t grill in the US: tako (octopus), ika (squid), and some others.

After Yokohama, we stayed in Ueno for a few nights…

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

The panda in our hotel lobby! Ueno is famous for its park and zoo.

bunnies!

bunnies in the local bakery.

custard-filled Panda bread!

custard-filled Panda bread!

more animal goodies!

more animal goodies!

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

the ones on the right are ADORABLE. hedgehogs??

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together...

our last konbini (convenience store) breakfast/lunch together…

Okinawa's "shikuasa" juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Okinawa’s “shikuasa” juice and mushipan (fluffy, steamed bread) with the shape of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido!

Hokkaido!

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

Warrior gods in the Tokyo National Museum.

a mask and me.

a mask and me.

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

The knowledgeable Ohno-san drew us in the park!

We only asked for a "semi-color" portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train... But it was worth it!

We only asked for a “semi-color” portrait, but he went out and produced this! It took so long Ken almost missed his train… But it was worth it!

Ken has returned home to Australia, and I’ve moved into my new apartment. For the first time in my life, it’s time to start living on my own!

夏の旅updates: Lots of feelings (with plenty of tangents)

I wrote too much so I decided to break this post into two parts– feel free to skip around!

I. Back in Japan! Thoughts and Feelings…
II. Being Filipino-American in Japan

I. Back in Japan! Thoughts and Feelings…

For exactly one month now I’ve been in Japan, and I’ve finally gotten used to the fact that I’ll be here for a while. This is my third time in Japan, and my feelings and experiences have varied from my earlier stays abroad.

The biggest difference is that I’m not here as a student. I’m currently here as a tourist and am planning to switch to a working visa within the next two weeks. I got into a pretty awkward situation at the JFK airport in NY when I told Japan Airlines that I was a tourist with no return ticket. US citizens are allowed to be in the country for up to 90 days on a tourist visa, but you need to have a round trip ticket, or proof that you will in fact be leaving the country. The only reason I did not have a working visa by the time I flew here was because my papers for work had just been processed before my scheduled departure, so I had no time to go to the Japanese consulate. Ah, I didn’t think coming here for vacation before work would be so complicated! If I had just waited for my papers to finish… But anyway, I wanted to get to Japan!

Another strange thing about not being a student and having a set job as a teacher is that I’m supposed to at least appear to be an “adult” now. One of the hardest things about that for me is dressing like an “adult”, to be honest. Most women in Japan wear stylish clothes, a little to a LOT of makeup (fake-eyelashes being a popular item), and fashionable sandals or heels (that can get to staggering heights), but I think makeup is a hassle and I take forever to stumble around in (short) heels. At least I’m still on vacation for a while longer! I’ve been wearing sturdy flip flops this entire time.

A third interesting change from my previous two experiences in Japan is that I have gone through a few stages of emotion in a rapid flurry– what took me a year took me now about three weeks:

  1. Joy, excitement about being in Japan. I’ve missed my friends! And I’ve missed Japanese food!!
  2. Homesickness- mainly missing my family and two dogs
  3. Doubt- wondering if it was really the best decision for me to commit to working in Japan for two whole years
  4. Disillusionment- with Japanese society– particularly the expectations of women, the Japanese definition of what it means to be a woman (for a future blog post!)
  5. Acceptance- knowing that I have a love-hate relationship with Japan, and that even when things get me down or frustrate me, there will be other aspects of life in Japan that’ll enrich my life and make me joyously happy.

I went through a huge range of emotions within just one day of wandering through Tokyo:

  1. Anger and frustration at male-dominance in society and a disturbing, overwhelming prevalence of rape in the Japanese porn and “hentai” industries (as seen just by walking around Akihabara, not necessarily searching for it)
  2. Calm and happiness while walking through Ueno park, then…
  3. …joyous excitement after stumbling upon a huuge parade that had a lot of drumming (including taiko!) and one arts university’s group of 3 over-the-top floats (a pink elephant holding a woman, a giant astronaut, and I-don’t-even-know) whose wackiness and creativity reminded me of Oberlin students and Oberlin’s Big Parade
  4. Extreme sadness at seeing a tiny, sad old homeless woman in Asakusa, while tons of people walked on by…

Phew, I think my emotions need a break.

(The above sounds too negative! I was also really excited about finding a great new purple backpack in Ueno’s アメ横”Ameyoko” shopping area for much cheaper than I’d been seeing while traveling! … though the salesman also said on at least 4 or 5 occasions 「女性にはとっても人気です!」 (“Popular among women!”) which re-inforced my gripe that women are always pushed to act feminine and cute, and irked me almost enough to pick other bags out of spite… again, for a future post!)

AH! This blog post is turning into something much more than an “overview”, but I think we’re starting to cover a lot of info!

II. Being Filipino-American in Japan

This is not really a difference from my first two stays abroad, but one interesting thing about being in Japan is that because I am of Filipino heritage and so of Asian appearance, I don’t get the じろじろ stares, gawks, or casually-passes-by-then-turns-to-look reactions from Japanese people. For me this is a relief, as I’d prefer not to stick out too much and get nervous when strangers look at me. However, while traveling with my Japanese-Australian boyfriend, who really does look Japanese (obviously), I get some pretty funny head-snaps-around-whaaat-just happened?! reactions when we are walking/standing in silence and suddenly bust out the English. I usually casually throw in some Japanese in the best accent possible to let people know that yes, I can understand and speak some Japanese and so you can’t talk about me right next to me.

I’m not completely fluent, but I’ve been studying for a very long time and so am a little proud about it.. I still maintain my personal 2011 study-abroad a policy of speaking only Japanese to Japanese people, and I get a little offended if people offer me the “English menu”.

When I was a student and a little less used to Japan as I am now, I relished the fact that while I blended in, I could also use the “gaijin card” whenever I was in need of help– just by inevitably failing to be fluent. I try not to do that as much now, preferring to try hard to figure things out myself.

Many Filipinos who come to Japan come in search of work, and sadly a huge proportion of those workers turn into bar girls or other. While walking down one particular red-light alley in Ueno, I saw at least 6 signs for Filipino bars. This is really upsetting to me- particularly because not all Filipino women who end up as bar girls meant to come here as such. I have not faced any issues or discrimination from being of Filipino American descent– just curiosity as to how I can look Asian and be American at the same time.

It’s 2:30AM now and I’ve been walking all day.. more next time!

つづく。。。