Shan-Shan Matsuri in Tottori Prefecture
photo by Maxwell P. Fisher
New Column
Yonsei Mika Osaki, a Bay Area native currently teaching English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program in Tottori, Japan, will be writing about her journeys in the Nichi Bei Weekly.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of arriving all alone to an empty studio apartment in a new country. The apartment was smaller than my college dorm, and there was no friendly roommate or even a real bed to greet me. It was August of the hottest summer reported in years, and the humidity clung feverishly to my skin. There was a mirror, a TV tray and a thin futon on the floor. I stood there clutching my two suitcases, 21 years old and fresh out of undergrad, in what felt like the saddest room I had ever seen. A numb, sinking feeling took over my entire body, and I felt the room get smaller and smaller.

I tried to take in the reality of my circumstances. I had just moved from the metropolitan Bay Area to rural Japan to teach English. I didn’t know any Japanese. I didn’t know anyone in Tottori, the least populated prefecture in the country. I had no Internet and no cell service, which meant I couldn’t even call home. There was nothing to fill the crushing silence.

I sat down on the futon. It was so thin that I could feel the hardwood floor beneath it. I spread the Polaroids I had taken with friends and family across the floor, and willed myself to remember the happy memories they contained. The colorful pictures brightened up the drab room, but they also reminded me that everyone I had known and loved were an ocean and several time zones away. I laid down and stared at the cracks in the ceiling. The sleep I so desperately needed for the busy week ahead eluded me in such a strange place. I mourned the comfort of familiarity that I had so brazenly left behind. I had so much back in the states — a loving family, lifelong friends, and a Japanese American community where I had always belonged. Now, I had only this empty room. There was no turning back. I was here to stay. “Welcome home,” I thought dryly to myself.

The following week was a whirlwind of orientations, meetings, and first experiences. I made friends, and moved some furniture into my apartment. As the shock of such an enormous life change wore off, I began to explore my neighborhood. Walking around town made me realize that, unlike my visibly foreign friends, I could go about daily life virtually undetected as an American-born foreigner because of my Japanese ancestry. I looked just like the lady at the post office and the construction workers and the TV stars and the bank tellers. It was a strange feeling, blending in.

At the end of that first week, I went to Shan-Shan Matsuri, the biggest festival in the prefecture. All of the street foods I knew and loved from J-Town were sold on every street corner. Women floated around in bright, colorful yukata and clutched ornately decorated umbrellas. Laughing children ran through the crowded streets, safe and sound, playing the same carnival games I played at JA festivals as a child. Music I grew up dancing to at Obon was carried through the town by the lazy evening breeze, and vibrant dancers performed up and down the city center. It was new and nostalgic all at once.

I looked around and felt the airy, carefree joy that had taken hold of the people, and was suddenly overcome with emotion. I saw pieces of myself reflected in their wholeness. I realized that I had always been searching for the beautifully unapologetic expression of my heritage that I now found myself at the center of. In that moment, I knew that I had made the right decision to move to my ancestral homeland. It’s true that I’m a fourth-generation American who can’t speak Japanese, but it had never been more clear to me that the culture and the heritage of this beautiful country are at the core of my being. This place is apart of who I am, it runs fiercely through my veins. And this is just the start. My journey is only beginning. I smiled to myself and thought, “welcome home.”

Mika Osaki is a Yonsei and a recent college graduate. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up deeply involved in SF’s Japantown community. She is currently living in Tottori city, Japan as an English teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, and can be reached via e-mail at sydnieosaki@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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