Friday, November 28, 2008

This ain't Tokyo

To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced going back to the town where I used to live was a good idea. I regretted my decision to leave Japan for a long time after I returned to Canada. I was on the brink of despair when I left and it took almost a full year for the feelings of loss and longing to finally fade away.

Saying goodbye the first time around was traumatic enough. I was worried I would go to pieces and never recover if I went back and left a second time. Part of me thought maybe it would be better to never go back at all.

During the past year, not a day went by when I didn't think about the town where I used to live. I missed the people, the scenery, the mountain roads, the rice fields, the food, the river, the schools, the kids. I wanted to go back. I didn't want to go back.

I was torn. But in the end, I decided to go. Even at the risk of reopening old wounds. It seemed worth it.

When my train pulled into the station on Friday afternoon, many of the same people who had seen me off more than a year ago were there waiting for my return. They were smiling and waving, welcoming me back with open arms. It felt as if I had never left at all. The time and distance between us evaporated.

A few of my former students also came to the train station to see me. Even the brooding kid who was suspended for biting a teacher last year was there. I was touched, in a weird kind of way.

I ran into many of my former students during the course of the weekend (yes, the town really is that small). All of them seemed surprised to see me. But they all remembered me. I was worried they would have forgotten me but they didn't. It may seem like a small thing but it made me deliriously happy.

The whole weekend was kind of like that. Nothing extraordinary happened. I simply spent five days with people I missed for the better part of a year. We went for walks together, ate dinner together and just sat around doing nothing together. But I couldn't have been any happier.

And while I did experience a little bit of sadness and longing while driving through the streets that used to be mine, I also felt a sense of relief. I was waiting for a flood of emotion to drown me in sorrow and regret but it never came. Nothing had changed. Nothing had gone away. Everyone was just as happy to see me as I was to see them.

The volleyball team I used to play on even held a party in my honour.

I stayed with the PE teacher and her family on Friday and Saturday nights. I stayed with my former supervisor on Sunday night. And I stayed with my friend Sachi on Monday night.

The PE teacher, her friend and I went on a little road trip on Saturday. We drove to the top of a nearby mountain and went for a long walk. We were so high up that there was snow. Not much but enough to make a mini-snowman.

My supervisor roped me into doing a 10 km race with her on Sunday morning. My time was slow (54:17) but good enough for second place in my age group. My age group, by the way, was "12 to 39." In what world is that a fair age group? I would have placed first if the age groups were a little less broad. Instead, I suffered the indignity of being beaten by a 13-year-old girl.

Because prizes were given out to the top three finishers in each age category, my second place finish meant that I had to go up on stage during the awards ceremony. I was presented with a medal, a case of juice and an official certificate.

It was all very formal. You have to bow when the guy hands you the certificate. He bows and you bow. You bow when you get up on the stage and you bow again when you get off. There was a lot of bowing. I showed the 13-year-old punk who beat me how it's done.

The next morning, we woke up to pounding rain but my supervisor simply looked out the window and said, "Let's go hiking!"

She threw her 9-year-old daughter and the family dog into the back of the truck and off we went.

I spent Monday night with my friend Sachi and her family.

Sachi's niece is only two years old but she can already pose like a pro.

When I went to the train station on Tuesday to head back to Kyoto, I felt some of the same emotions I felt the first time I left, but on a much smaller scale.

The first time I said goodbye, I was on the brink of despair. I knew that as soon the train left the station, my life here would be gone. I could visit but it would never be the same. I would never be able to return to the life I once had here. I was inconsolable.

Leaving this time was different. I was a little sad. But I knew that Sakawa was never mine. Even if I had stayed an extra year or two, I would have had to leave eventually. My time here was never permanent. I have come to terms with that now.

Saying goodbye this time was easier. I know that I'll always be welcome in Sakawa and that I can return any time I like. It will never be just a vacation. It will always be a trip home.

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