On August 20, my host parents picked me up from Tenjin in downtown Fukuoka and we went to the mountains at Mitsuse. When I studied at Kyushu University in 2009-2010, I didn’t live with a host family, but I had host parents named Shinobu and Yoshinori with whom I met regularly, and we explored in and around Fukuoka together. Shinobu, my host mother, picked me up and we dropped by the house to meet Yoshinori. She gave me a copy of “Hinotori No. 9”, a 1967 manga by a favorite author of her’s named Tezuka Osamu 手塚治虫.
We drove out of the city into the Kyushu countryside, which is brilliantly green and full of mountains and mist. We passed clusters of squat houses and factories in a broad plain, then climbed a winding road into the hills. We passed under a web of overpasses in the mountains climbing up a long valley, and started down the other side. We stopped for soba noodles in Mitsuse. Soba is the local specialty. I ate a hot bowl of farm-raised chicken soup with soba, and we discussed my coming trip to China. My host parents love China and visited years ago. Perhaps they will come see me in Shanghai?
It was two years since I had seen them last. My host mom joked that she had turned into an old lady. Her main business is still making hats, but she has broadened into “remaking” kimono into Western dresses. Kimono are quite expensive in Japan, and few people wear or even know how to wear them. The custom of wearing Western clothes saturated Japan about 100 years ago, so today its difficult to find a place for traditional dress. Kimono can be rented for special occasions, as a real kimono is not likely to get much more wear than a tuxedo or wedding dress. My host mom hopes the remade dresses would sell in America. Who knows?
Two years ago, when I left Fukuoka, it was my host mom who said, “From now on you’ll see how Japanese will change your life.” With two more years of Japanese, I came back and experienced Japan at a depth I’d only imagined. Perhaps the myth that Japanese and Japan are impenetrable to “Westerners” lurked somewhere in my mind, but I was buoyed by my teacher’s creed, “Culture doesn’t ask for your passport.” Perhaps I needed to prove this to myself. In any case, I was elated when a friend said, “If I only close my eyes, you’re a Japanese.” I felt a sublime happiness in speaking freely in a language that hadn’t saturated the years after my birth, and the greatest happiness in deepening the bonds between myself and my friends, teachers, and host family. If I may land on a distant shore and feel at home in my heart, where cannot I find happiness? The world is full of friends, and I am small.