An Overdue Love Letter to Japan

Dear Japan,

You are such an incredible place, and yet it took me ages to write this out. You were the first country to spark my wanderlust over a spontaneous Christmas trip with family friends to Tokyo. You were the first country to stamp my passport.

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You were the third country I moved to, but the first in which a job was lined up for me beforehand – something I’m not accustomed to, given my nomadic ways. You made the move extremely easy for me – no stress, no planning, no worrying. I was ready to take on every part of the job and experience.

Old odori kimono, circa 1995
My old odori kimono, circa 1995 – because I couldn’t find my proper odori photos

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The only problem is, I really wasn’t ready – emotionally, at least.

In truth, I didn’t know why the hell I was so sad at the time. I felt stupid, because I was meant to be a nomadic veteran by that point, yet I was acting like a kindergartener. Looking back on it, the reason was strikingly apparent.

As repetitive as this sounds, I was reeling from heartbreak, yet in complete denial about it. I told myself I was fine day in and day out, but I was actually shattered inside. I was running, trying to be as far away as possible from the cause of my hurt. For a solid month, I was crying outside of work for no reason in particular (so I thought), but never told anyone aside from my mom. I had a few contacts I knew throughout Japan (who were all incredibly helpful and supportive – so thank you from the bottom of my heart).

If I hadn’t been struggling with that factor, I probably would have been a lot more inclined to stay – and I say that with the rawest of honesty because I’ve never known myself better than I do at this very moment. For some reason, the whole barrier of moving to a non-English speaking country in the midst of heartbreak just made me unravel inside and out.

I was broken, culture shocked, and my mind was constantly enshrouded in a fog. The eerie Gone Girl soundtrack became my soundscape for your country, which also didn’t help my situation. Perhaps I just needed that time to grow and figure out what I was escaping from and who I was meant to become – and why I truly am happiest when I’m single and carefree.

It took me two years and three countries to finally (freakin’) realize that I needed to snap out of my nostalgia for the past and live freely again. Really, it had less to do with Japan itself than it did with myself as whole.

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I wasn’t strong enough to live happily in the moment when I was there. In addition, I was unhappy and stressed at work, and I felt like my health could be in jeopardy if I stayed.

Takachiho Gorge: Such beauty
Takachiho Gorge: Such beauty

I felt like a big, fat failure. In the long run, I just needed to regroup to find myself again. I needed closure, both in my personal life and within myself. Deciding to leave was the most difficult decision of my life, but it taught me a lot about strength and knowing what was best for me at the time.

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Kumamoto, you are a quaint city that virtually no one has heard of, mainly because you’re on the southern island of Kyushu (not Honshu). You have your charm, though – you’re home to a beautiful castle and is the birthplace of Kumamon, Japan’s most famous mascot. I was proud to live in your quiet quarters and even prouder when I could finally navigate your streets without using my tattered city map.

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You became my home for both winter and spring, and I was lucky enough to experience cherry blossom season while there. I loved my 30-minute peaceful walk to and from work every day, half of which was bordering the castle.

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In reflection, I really loved educating myself about Japanese culture – a culture I felt so detached from since I grew up in America. While I was familiar with some customs (omiyage, constant thank-you notes, etc.), nothing compares to being immersed in it firsthand while living there. I miss everything about you, Japan – but primarily your sensational food.

To the students I was fortunate enough to teach: You were all incredible. Even though I masked my struggles from all of you, I honestly loved talking to each and every one of you because you all fascinated me with your astounding intelligence. Nearly all of you have traveled to more countries than I’d ever dream of, and yet you’re still so humble and grateful for every experience. You are all beautiful souls inside and out, and it’s safe to say that you’re all my favorite students I’ve ever taught (shhh, don’t tell the kids in Thailand that). You all worked harder in class than I’ve ever worked in my entire life, which put me to shame! That gave me that much more drive to put on a genki face and attempt to impart any useful knowledge (even down to casual American lingo) on all of you. I will never forget any of you – from your hilarious banter to your impeccable fashion (both guys and girls – how do you always dress so nice, without any wrinkles in sight?!). And Nami, you gifted me the most beautiful handmade necklace ever – the only reason I left it back home was because I didn’t want it to get ruined in Thailand’s humidity!

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Shu, the student on the far right, took all these professional photos at my welcome party and Justin’s farewell party – and he’s possibly the nicest guy you’ll ever meet in Japan.

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The first time I've ever had to give a (terrible) speech to a non-native English-speaking crowd
The first time I’ve ever had to give a (terrible) speech to a non-native English-speaking crowd

And to the three children I taught – my goodness, I think you were the three most well-behaved children I’ve ever met in my life. American and Thai kids sure could learn a thing or two from you.

To Justin: You certainly gave me big shoes to fill, because you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with (aside from my current manager in Thailand who rocks my socks). You blew me away with your Japanese fluency, your worldly outlook on life, and your ability to befriend anyone and just love life in general. Our time together was short, and I was devastated because I would have loved nothing more than to work with a Kiwi in Japan. Regardless, thank you for passing on all your wisdom to me and for leaving behind such helpful notes, grammar plans, an organized student database, and for spontaneously agreeing to adventure around Tokyo DisneySea with me on such short notice. You’re the best, and I can only hope to cross paths with you overseas again somewhere in the future – perhaps when I’m permanently settled in New Zealand (I swear on my life that I’m making that happen)! 😉

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To Devin & Anthony: Thanks for keeping in touch with me and continuously inspiring me to stay abroad. Devin, you owe me a bungy jump adventure when you move to Australia. Anthony, you were my primary sounding board for my thousands of questions before and during my arrival, and I can’t thank you enough! (And thanks to Bri for giving me an awesome contact in Kyushu!)

Anthony! And Devin, I had 0 photos with you aside from us just taking pictures of our noms, HA
Anthony! And Devin, I had 0 photos with you aside from us just taking pictures of our noms, HA

To all the people throughout Japan (primarily Kumamoto) who helped me while I was there: Thank you from every part of my heart. Being Japanese-American, I felt like I wasn’t even Japanese when I came to your country – especially in terms of manners. My goodness, you are all the most gracious, patient, and polite people I have ever met on earth (Kiwis and Aussies, you’re right up there with them!). Everyone bows and gives their thanks – even when you simply entering or leaving a shop. At some points, I swore you folks would touch the ground with your dexterity in bowing down so low (apparently, the lower you bow, the more polite). The level of politeness is astounding, which makes your culture so fascinating. It’s quite a contrast being in Thailand (where no one has a problem calling you “fat” here), and it makes me appreciate your country that much more.

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Everything is so immaculate. For being a country with hardly any bins to be seen (which resulted in carrying around 7-11 bags of trash in my backpack), it’s incredible that there isn’t even a speck of lint on the ground. You don’t even have the usual bird poop or gum stuck to pavements – that stuff is just totally out of the question in Japan. It’s heaven on earth to walk into bathrooms, shops, trains, restaurants, everything – and not have to worry about sanitation issues. I’m fairly certain that it’s the only country where you could accidentally drop ice cream on the floor and still eat it and not get sick (okay, not that I would, but still).

Trash: 0. Beauty: Immeasurable.
Trash: 0. Beauty: Immeasurable.

The efficiency of your public transportation is phenomenal. Despite living in a smaller city, I still managed to learn the bus and train routes (even without English signage) because of the gracious locals who could point or gesture on a map to the correct stations. Bullet trains need to exist everywhere in the world, because you are clearly people who understand the true beauty of efficiency and punctuality. Which brings me to my next point…

Tiny little train in Aso
Tiny little train in Aso

The concept of punctuality is amazing. Although I definitely had to adjust from my lax ways (there is no concept of time in Australia and New Zealand, which I love), I’m still an impatient American at heart who wants everything on the dot. When buses and trains arrive earlier than expected and leave on the exact minute, it’s enthralling. That never even happens in California. Japan, you’re unreal.

Your attention to detail is truly the best in the world. The way you prepare and present dishes; how you wrap (and double/triple-wrap) anything, even if it’s not a gift; the hilarious characters on the smallest of signs; the way things are beautiful even in 7-11s. Your food was packaged and/or displayed so beautifully that I was fearful of eating it and wrecking a masterpiece.

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THE FOOD. Oh my God, your FOOD. Growing up, my grandpa used to only eat Japanese food. I finally understand why. However, when I was a young’in and we went out to eat at Japanese restaurants, it would be like pulling teeth. I shied away from all Japanese food (except for California rolls, which are 100% Western and 0% Japanese) and only fell in love with it in 2012 when I first visited your country. How dumb was I to only eat the fried noodles and fried rice at Todai when there was clearly much better stuff?!

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Basashi (horse meat)
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First meal in Japan: Tempura & udon
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One of my go-to dishes in Japan
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Soba soooo good

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And who could possibly forget my favorite – RAMEN AND SUSHI.

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Japan has the best gyoza in the world, obviously
Japan has the best gyoza in the world, obviously
I could eat this every day of my life and never get sick of it
I could eat this every day of my life and never get sick of it

I absolutely love how healthy all of your dishes are. It’s something I fully appreciate upon living in Thailand, where the concept of “healthy” is out the window (The Land of Fried Foods & Sugar-Loaded Drinks). Your matcha green tea is so fresh and amazing, and in general, the fact that you serve (complimentary) tea with every meal is the best. Your service is also on par (far better than Thailand), and I don’t think I ever waited longer than 15 min. for a meal at any restaurant, despite how busy it was. The Japanese sure know the meaning of quality guest service.

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My takeaway from living in your country for a brief time: It’s not your fault at all, by any means, that I cut my stay short. Even in the darkest of times, there’s always hope – always a chance for positivity to shine through. You’re an incredible country with the most polite people on earth (if the rest of the world could be as polite as you, our world would be a better place). I will always remember the reasons why I fell in love with your amazing country in the first place.

And I definitely left a piece of my heart with Kumamon, so I hope he guards it well throughout his travels. 🙂

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That time I ran into Kumamon before work and I was happy as a clam
That time I ran into Kumamon before work and I was happy as a clam

Yours truly,

Debbi

DCIM100GOPRO

P.S. Extra thanks to Michelle, whose next adventures inspired me to write this – and truly the main reason why I followed suit and moved to this fascinating country in the first place. ❤

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