July 8, 2021

Today is another hot, humid day in Texas, which seems like the way this year’s just gonna go. It’s hot, hotter than it’s ever been: the kind of hot that makes you hid inside with all the windows closed, every single ceiling fan on at least the mid-level so it moves the air, and all the blinds closed. It’s the kind of hot that makes me crave shaved ice, heaped in a styrofoam

It’s also the day after tanabata, a day that had my mind back in Sendai in 2016, a scant week and a half after I arrived in Japan, and more specifically: in Fukushima.

I first moved to Fukushima on July 27, 2016, and like many things, it’s a memory that’s been crystalized, locked into my mind in its true nature because y’all? I was terrified.

I’d never left America and here I was with three suitcases -in this case, I’d sent my biggest two ahead, so I only had my carry-on- and a personal item, clad in a blazer and long, plaid business pants in the balmy, uncomfortable Japanese summer. I was anxious, in large part because while I spoke Japanese, I had never had to use it: at least, not practically. But now, that would be the sole way I could communicate with 90% of my office. It would be a gateway into the community taking me in.

I was also very, very worried about my longevity in a foreign country: because I was scared, I was also overwhelmed, and within a week of incidents (getting lost twice, not understanding buses and trains, general anxiety, exhaustion and jet lag) I’d determined that I was going to wait until my first paycheck came, pack up my meager belongings, and leave without looking back. It would be hard -I’m not a fan of ghosting, and I’d be leaving a school without a teacher for a year, and I’d be making it harder for the next ALT- but… remember, I was terrified.

As you know, I stayed for four years and will be returning to teaching this year. Funny how things worked out, huh?

But that’s not what I’m writing about today: today, I’m thinking about August 6th, a Saturday, a scant eleven days after I’d arrived in Fukushima, which means thirteen days after I’d landed in Tokyo. Maybe fourteen, since we landed on July 24th.

So… tanabata.

I’d heard of the holiday multiples times while living in America: first in the context of its Chinese origins, then in the context of Japan during my time at a nihongo kyoushitsu (Japanese language school) and then during my graduate coursework, which was also when I was at the language school. I’d heard of it, but never had a chance to celebrate it, largely because… well, I just didn’t. St. Louis, where I went to graduate school, has a sizable nissei, sansei, and yonsei community, as well as a good amount of Japanese nationals. It’s that community that taught me Japanese at a local college, and that community that held a Labor Day weekend festival.

If there was a tanabata celebration, I missed it: probably because most of my grad years (all two of them) were spent dealing with the aftermath of Michael Brown (who was murdered fifteen minutes away my from college apartment) or trying to keep my head above water as the sole Black/non-white student in cohort. Grad school was… a lot, and it left little time for fun.

So, it wasn’t until I moved to Japan, and into proximity of the largest tanabata festival in the country, that I actually got to experience it, and wow… what a wonderful day. Like I said, it’s crystalized in my memory, preserved like a bug in amber so that I can pick it up, gently turn it over, and relive the memory -one of many- that helped me stay in Japan.

Let me take you through the memory.

I remember waking up at 5:40 a.m., which was necessary to catch the earliest train from Minami-Fukushima City (where I lived) up to the main station, which then picked up the main line and went all the way to Sendai. I was joined by some friends: a senior ALT and some of the newbies. We were all exhausted because… jet lag is real.

Still, we sleepily, muzzily meandered our way up North on an 81 minute train ride. I listened to the creaks, rocked to a light slumber off and on by the gentle sway that rural trains have. It was the first time I would leave the city since my arrival, and it felt… magical. Special. Important.

When I arrive, we disembarked as a group, shuffling into the massive lines heading up the stairs or the escalator. We chose escalator, squeezing on as thousands of people milled about, heading up the main concourse to exist the station. And then… we went to the festival.

The tanabata festival was a sea of kazari, which are mainstay decorations for the holiday. They are… massive. Beautifully massive, teeming with streamers and cranes and decorations, and when you walk beneath them, you feel like you’re no longer in the city, which we most definitely were. I didn’t have words then, and I don’t have them now. What I do have… is pictures.

One of my fondest memories of that day wasn’t captured in a picture: it lives rent free in my mind, rolling around the back of my brain. And it’s a slice of yubari melon that was chilled on piles of ice: I bought it for 100 yen, and it was the juiciest, freshest, sweetest, crispest piece of melon I’ve ever devoured. I could have eatened the rind, it was so good. Of course, I didn’t, though I munched right down the where the bitterness of the rind started to creep through. I think it was so good because it was so, so cold, and Sendai, a city by the sea, was humid in the open-air street mall where the festival was held. That melon gave me a burst of sugar-ladden energy that made the walk back to the station easy.

Plus, it was very, very good.

August 6, 2016 was the first day that I felt like Fukushima City -and the Tohoku region- could be called home. I felt that until August 11, 2020, when I left Japan, and I feel it now, even though I’ll be moving to Kagoshima Prefecture, which I hope will also feel like home. I worry that I’ll try to lean on my time as an ALT too much, but also… I think I’ve had enough distance from that leg of my life that now, I’ll just be an adult who teaches and works in Japan versus a JET ALT.

And I suppose that’s why I’m writing this post. At least, it is… in a way. As I look towards moving (once again, during a pandemic) I find myself craving home again. While Dallas is my birth home, Fukushima is where I grew into adulthood. Kagoshima will be where I grow into my thirties, teaching, and then… maybe doing more. I don’t know, I’m very open to the possibilities, though I want to teach for a few years, at least. And maybe I’ll find my way back to Fukushima: I’ll find my way back to Sendai, back to the tanabata festival, and maybe… I don’t know, maybe I’ll make a home there for a while too.

I’m open to making new memories, to making thoughts that I can preserve like little keepsakes, memories that I can draw on to see how far I come. I certainly hope that as I move into a new community in Kagoshima, I’ll make memories like that: ideas and thoughts that I can share with others to inspire more travel, more connections, and hopefully, a more full-bodied image of Japan.

That’s all for now: it’s lunchtime, and my stomach aches for food. I have one more bowl of shrimp wonton ramen left. I think I’m going to bump it up with some miso, green onions, mirin, sake, and a bit of pepper, and chow down.

See you next post!

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