Looking back from what has happened over the past year or so, I would have never imagined that I would be where I am now. I remember during the same time last year, I was sobbing in my hospital bed as I broke the news to Ebony over the phone about how I couldn’t go on the GIEU Japan trip. Now I’m finally here and the trip is about to end. Although I’m sad that I wasn’t able to go with my last group, the past couple of weeks have been time filled with amazing adventures and memories that have changed me in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Honestly though, it kinda sucks being the last one to post on the blog because it’s difficult to pick just one memory. However, the first time I really felt at home in Ishinomaki was a few hours before we took over Fukko Bar. We were still adjusting to being in this new town, but the people welcomed us with warm arms right when we entered Hashi-Dori Commons. The local pops was there again from the night before (as some of you have read in previous blogs) and would constantly just buy us food. Not only that, we met some mothers and their kids who were absolutely fascinated with us. They were learning English and were insistent on practicing with us. The kids were a bit shy, but by the end of the night, we were all laughing and playing games with them. The most heartfelt thing was that one of the younger girls stole my camera (bless that she didn’t drop it). Not only did she leave one of my favorite picture of all time, but a night that I never felt so at home in a country that was oh so foreign. Although I’ve been to places such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka beforehand, Ishinomaki made a place in my heart that I’ll never forget.
It made me realize that it’s not the place that makes it special, it’s about the people you meet. On our free day, I was able to head to Sendai where I didn’t know what to expect. I met up with a lovely boy who was determined to make my day in Sendai something I wouldn’t forget. From the awes at the pet shop, kicking his butt in Mario Kart, and getting dinner at McDonald’s, it made Sendai feel a bit smaller and more at home. Even the journey back was a wild ride from thinking I missed the last train to getting off a stop that was not even close to the hotel. However, a man sensed my fear and lack of knowledge of the area and called up a taxi for me. He even waited for the taxi to come before he parted ways with me.
Last year, I was in a rather dark place and couldn’t even imagine how I was going to get out of it. Although the anticipation killed me, I’m so happy I was given the opportunity to do this all over again and maybe breaking my pelvis in the end was a good thing.
For 21 years, I’ve been in a complicated relationship with Japanese. I’m a Japanese American who was born and raised in the U.S. I consider myself native in English, but only mildly fluent in Japanese. Even though I speak Japanese without a foreign accent, I sometimes get stuck trying to explain things due to my lack of grammar and vocabulary. This often makes things complicated when people assume that I am completely Japanese native, when I definitely am not. Japanese is also complicated because you have to be careful with how you speak, especially towards an elderly or someone above you. As a result, I’ve always been timid speaking in Japanese. Even though I crave to learn more, the fear of sounding incompetent or accidentally offending someone has always been a tough barrier for me to overcome. It’s complicated.
HOWEVER, coming to Ishinomaki has helped me out in many ways.
As the only Japanese speaking student, I’ve had to use my Japanese to translate in many situations. At first, I was concerned of my own abilities, but it turned out, no one cared. Especially for the students, all they cared about was for their Taiyakis’ to get fried or to ask for no meat in their dishes. Easy enough for me! This trip has allowed me to strip away much of my worries of incompetency, and instead concentrate my efforts toward engaging with the community members. My Japanese, something that I was so dubious about, became my super power. Through my Japanese, I met a local lady who introduced me to the peculiar tastes of Hoya (Sea Pineapple). I’ve shared laughters with our local Otōsan (father), learned about his hardships after the Great Earthquake, and ate all the food he treated us to. Also because of my Japanese, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at the local radio station about my time in Ishinomaki and pub for our Michigan Matsuri event. It was a bit nerve wracking at first, but once we started talking, I was surprised at how long I could actually sustain a Japanese conversation. Talking on the radio was an exhilarating and confidence-boosting experience that I will hold dearly forever. Shout out to Brad for co-speaking and Lama for the moral support 🙂
(PSA: We will be hosting our Michigan Matsuri event at the COMMON-SHIP 橋通り this Saturday, 5/26 at 6-9pm. For the first half, we will be showcasing the projects we’ve been working on with our community partners. For the second half, three local singers, Moe-chan, LIBOO, and Gakudan Hitori, will be performing the night away! It’s gonna be a blasts, so come one come all!)
Through casually conversing with the people of Ishinomaki and constantly translating back and forth, I’ve realized the power of speaking Japanese. Acting as an intermediary to connect us Muricans to the locals of Ishinomaki, it’s been a challenging yet rewarding experience thus far. Speaking Japanese is complicated, but coming to Ishinomaki has helped me catalyze that drive to continue practicing my (parents’ homeland) language 🙂
Ishinomaki is a seaside town, but it’s not easy to actually get to the ocean. After the tsunami, sea walls were built on most of the coastline to protect against future disasters. The area between the sea walls and town is all non-residential by law.
Many people don’t like the sea walls. Some because they miss the ocean view. Fishermen especially dislike not being able to wake up and gauge the temper of the ocean from their window. Others think the money could have been better spent on projects more closely related to the citizens of Ishinomaki.
I wanted to see the ocean, or at least get as close as possible. I had the impression that I could just walk up to a sea wall and climb up stairs on one side and down stairs on the other. I wanted to stand with a giant wall to my back and tiny, lonely beach in front of me. But I imagined it wrong. I haven’t been able to find beaches in Ishinomaki. You can’t just walk down to the ocean. You can’t touch it. I recorded approximately how far I walked from the center of town and back to try and give a sense of how far from the coast most things are and how much time it takes to get there.
Searching for the sea turned out to be a great way for me to explore Ishinomaki and go to many places we didn’t visit as part of our scheduled programming. The search gave me both the best and worst views of my entire trip. Yet I want to make sure it’s obvious that this is only a small part of Ishinomaki. I went out of my way to go to some of the worst looking places in the city. Just know that there is so much more beauty to Ishinomaki than this journey.
May 17 – 4.5 miles
For my first attempt I had a fairly straightforward strategy. Find a road then walk toward the water. I was quickly out of the downtown area. The road was lined with foundations of destroyed buildings and large piles of dirt that I knew were buried rubble. It made me sad, but I wanted that. A lot of roads led into construction zones that I knew I should not enter or were just dead ends. I eventually I got to a small and obviously new park. There I could climb to the top of a slide to see what was ahead. Every path toward the ocean seemd to be fenced off, there were only fields of dirt and gravel. I could see a road with cars on it in the distance but I didn’t know how to reach it. Maps told me I was about a 15 minute walk to the ocean, but I saw no clear path to get there.
There was an older women who had walked to a dead end intersection near the park. She did stretches against the fence and stared out at the desolate landscape. I wondered if she had been in Ishinomaki when the tsunami happened. I wondered if she remembered what that area had looked like before it was rubble. She soon left, but we exchanged good afternoons as she passed. I don’t have the language skills to ask her any of the question that filled my head. I went to stand in her place and stared at the emptiness for a while. Then I gave up looking for the day and turned back. I took a long route back and wandered for a while.
May 21 – 6.5 miles
A few days later I used a different strategy. I wanted to get to the distant road that I had seen before so I first crossed the river at a bridge close to town and then began following the river to the sea.
This area seemed to have more buildings close to the shore than where I was the first day I went exploring. I tried to stay away from places where it looked like I didn’t belong (more than it normally does). The town streets felt safer. I didn’t want to be yelled at by a construction worker who I couldn’t understand. As I passed a high school, I could hear the school band practicing and see girls playing tennis and boys playing baseball. All the buildings were new and everything smelled like fertilizer and and dirt. Many building have lines on the side that indicate how high the tsunami was in that area. All of them are over my head, many are multiple stories high.
Closer to the coast were many large warehouses that I assumed to be fish processing plants by the smell. The place was mostly empty because the work day was over, just a few stray cars still leaving. I don’t have a lot to say about the walk to get here because things were either empty or more of the same, but this part took the longest.
On the coast, there is a artificial bay created so that the boats have calmer water to dock in. Here you can finally smell the sea and see the gulls. But you still can’t see it because of the sea walls. You can only see the water of the artificial bay. More inland the seawall was slanted to one side but farther out it became a straight wall.
The slanted part has rickety collapsible metal stairs attached to the side. Once I climbed them I could finally see the ocean, stretching on for what looked like forever. It was beautiful. It was everything I has been looking for. To one side are two lighthouses. Three men fishing alone were scattered in different spots.
Farther out, the sea wall is about the width of an American neighborhood sidewalk, maybe three feet wide. Wide enough to comfortably walk on despite a strong wind. As I walk out, to my left is about a 10 foot drop on to concrete, on my right is a pile of what I can best describe as giant cement jacks piled up from under the water to close to the top of the wall. I sat down on the corner of the sea wall. The wind was louder than the waves and there was also an unidentifiable whirring noise like an airplane, but the sky was clear except for wispy clouds. I lay down on the wall to rest and breath in the smell. All I could see was ocean. It was just pure beauty and satisfaction. I stayed for a long time. I wanted to stay till sunset, but I also didn’t want to have to walk back in the dark. I said goodbye to the view and walked back down the stairs.
There was a much lower wall nearby where you could get closer to the water. But still the entire waterline was composed of metal lining and bags full of rocks.
To get back to downtown I walked over the bridge road I had seen in the distance on the first day. This was a place where someone who didn’t want to walk through a construction zone or climb a sea wall could see the ocean. The extra height gave me a panoramic view of Ishinomaki at sunset. I walked back through the empty roads that I hadn’t been able to find a way through the first day. There were no other people in sight, I could just walk in the middle of the street.
I started with a simple goal of finding the sea. I also found time to reflect, a better understand of this complex city that I am only passing through, and a sense of awe at both nature and what people can build.
P.S. “Pool floaty” says there is a beach in Ishinomaki but I haven’t been able to find it and if he won’t take me there it doesn’t count
The night leading up to the night at which I departed was quite honestly one of the most stressful nights I had ever gone through. My thoughts were as much a mess as the two suitcases, carry-on backpack, and camera bag that I would be taking with me. My abuela asked if I had forgot anything as I exited my home for the rest of the month, and I figured that if I did forget anything, it was most likely not worth taking with me. As I raced down the I-94 freeway towards the airport, I realized I had left something behind that I could not risk leaving to Japan without. I tell this story to show how truly uncoordinated and disorganized I am, and not just in this moment but in most waking moments throughout my life.
My trip that spanned over 6,400 miles and 19 hours showed how much these qualities about myself would prove to pay a factor over the course of my trip. I lack room as is on the plane, but my large backpack proved to be quite troublesome and made my flight much more uncomfortable than I should have been. Navigating the streets of Tokyo are already troublesome for someone with little Japanese language knowledge, but this process proved to also be physically straining as I struggled to lug around my suitcases. I can only owe my arrival to Sakura Hotel-Nippori to a fellow traveler and a kind local woman who sensed our confusion as we exited the train station.
Despite my initial troubles, I would not let this trip be a repeat of my previous study abroad experience, in which I did not take full advantage of the opportunity that I had worked so hard for. From the first night there, I did my absolute best to be as open as much I was comfortable with being. I feel as if this continued effort has carried well into my time into Japan, and because of it, I have been able to do so many different things that I would have never volunteered myself for, for fear of separating from the things I had grown used to. The best thing about it was that I was able to remain comfortable in this new-found level of uncomfortability. In Ishinomaki, my home for the next 3 weeks, I did my best to continue with the same patterns, trying new foods and volunteering for more hikes and walks that I knew my body would hate me for later. The people of Ishinomaki have made this process far more easier than I would have ever anticipated because of their warmness and willingness to do something as simple as greeting a complete stranger, both to them and their home country, This level of humanity was unprecedented considering the fact that it rarely ever happened in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
One of these experiences that I took full advantage of happened this past Sunday, May 20th, as a friend and I embarked on a hike across the bridge. Our intended location was a trail that we had not explored the last time I had been in the mountains. What seemed like an easier way up proved to be something that was still quite a trouble for the both of us. From the onset of the trip, I knew that I would have to do my best to find the positivity in the day despite the physical strain that came with this endeavor. This was honestly no trouble at all because the trail that seemed like it would just take us to the middle of nowhere, lead to two beautiful clearings that allowed for quite scenic views and a much needed break from the our travel. As we continued along the path, we were greeted with fun things to do like slides, playgrounds, and sledding. The latter proved to be the biggest obstacle of the day because as I embarked on my 5th trip down a seemingly familiar slope, I lost control of the sled and myself as I tumbled halfway down, eventually ended up with sensitive hands and a leg that was so badly skinned, I could not bare to look at it. Still, I pushed on and had so much fun and laughs that I could not feel anything but the peace that was so very welcomed after a long few days. I sure felt it the next few days, but the way I see it, it is only a reminder of my time here.
I will not say that my comfortability was solely my own doing, because it was not. The group of people that are on this trip are nothing short of remarkable, and have been there to support me at almost every step of the way. The most glaring showing of this is exemplified through my injury and the amount of check-ins that I have received makes me feel very cared for. Group leaders have helped me navigate the city and the language barrier to ensure that I was cared for. I have been able to find my footing in a way that I have not quite known before, leading me to believe that I coordinated in an unfamiliar place.
Japan truly is a beautiful place. A place that I have never experienced before, with a very rich culture. What is surprising to me is how similar the people in Japan can be to the people back home. I live in a small town and everyone pretty much knows everyone else. The sense of community is truly mesmerizing. The people in Japan are so kind and it is a very respectful culture with a lot of bowing. When I walk into a convenient store the workers start bowing their heads. And they bow once more when I exit the store.
Before this program started a group of students and myself decided to come to Japan a little earlier and explore cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. One of the moments I will always cherish is when we decided on the spot to hike up a mountain called Fushimi Inari-taisha, that none of us were really prepared for. We were low on water. In fact, a member of the group, Alexis, hiked up the mountain in a dress. As we were hiking up, the Sun was slowly coming down. We could see the orange tint of the Kyoto skyline. We were expecting a beautiful view, but instead we saw a shrine. To me, this was perfect because even though we were all hiking up to the top expecting to see a stunning view, we all encouraged each other to keep going up. This moment is when we all truly bonded the most.
Two days ago we all went went to Gobansho Park. We could see an entire island. We could see the island curve on its edges. The views at Gobansho park were breathtaking. I took some time to just sit by myself and take everything in. Also at the park we found a playground meant for children but that did not stop us from having our fun. It was cool to just act like a kid again and run around like a goofball. I was rolling around in the grass. That might not have been the best idea because later I found leeches on my pants. All in all, my time in Japan has been exciting and being able to have the privilege of traveling abroad has been a blessing.
Before I talk about my day let me set the scene
Ishinomaki is filled with parallels, each making its opposite shine even brighter or seem all the more darker
I’d be lying if I said all I found here was beauty but even the contrary is untrue
Plus some of the “ugly remains” show some beauty… and even more importantly hope
It shows progress and vitality
This city isn’t dying
It’s making a comeback and coming back stronger than the disasters it endured
And it’s strongest weapon to fight back
The community bonds
The bonds that sprouted or the bonds that even a earthquake and tsunami couldn’t dismantle
And moreover the ability to find beauty in times of despair
The appreciation of potential and all the little things
And yesterday when we scavenged around the city with the students from Touhoko University for Ishinomaki’s strange beauties and oddities I think these students showcased that philosophy of finding a gem among the rubble. And in turn, made me recall all the marvels and sense of community in my own hometown.
Today, when we pulled into the parking lot of the Sanriku Fukko National Park, I had expected this excursion to be something else I had to do, another opportunity for me to go through the motions of travelling with a group of strangers. But, when I stepped off the bus, I saw a view of a quaint bridge that had a backdrop of perfectly green and lush islands across the vast Pacific Ocean. As I walked across the bridge, glanced at the way the its red wood looked under my shoes and stood in awe of the beauty that surrounded me, I felt that this experience would be a bit different.
As the group settled into a set of benches and started our discussion, we were eventually given the assignment of interviewing a person that we hadn’t talked to before. After I scanned my options and found my partner for the activity, we walked up a small hill to get to another set of benches. We sat down and started talking about our experiences on the trip so far.
After talking and discovering that we had quite a bit in common, our conversation had stopped and we ended up staring at the view for the rest of our time together. While looking at the breathtaking ocean paired with a series of lusciously green islands, I finally had the opportunity to reflect on the past few days and how I got here, sitting on a bench with people I hardly knew at a national park in Japan. I first thought of where I was, who I was, and what was important to me this time last year. I was a high school senior, in Detroit, who was still shocked that I had been accepted into the University of Michigan and was wondering what I wanted to do with my time there. I was getting ready for prom, I was waiting until the last minute to study for finals, and I was ready to get the hell out of Detroit. If you were to tell that girl that in exactly one year she would find her passion in the city that she once so desperately wanted to escape, she would find out how to pursue her passion both in Detroit and abroad, and that she would be face-to-face with the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the world getting closer to being the person she wants to be every minute, I would have said that you were insane.
I suddenly feel a warm breeze run past my face, and it shifts my thoughts a little. I start to think about the people I have met and the places I have been. I soon realize that even though I may have thought that it was difficult to relate to people here, we all have something in common, no matter how strange. For example, me and my partner for the activity bonded over a love of SZA and Lauryn Hill. This feeling of camaraderie even occurs with the people of Ishinomaki. In my ITNAV group, especially, I realized that a drive to empower a community after a difficult time is a feeling that resonates no matter where you are in the world and no matter what language you speak. And it is a feeling that helped me feel so much closer to the people who worked in my group.
My train of thought is abruptly interrupted by someone telling us there is a swing/zipline combo on the other side of the parking lot. As I saw everyone in the program get up and swiftly move towards the swing, my thoughts were only confirmed. We all came from different places, have different experiences, and are accustomed to different things, but we all bonded over being a little too excited about that swing.
Today has been an adventure to say the least. It started off with my Makigumi group and I thinking of ideas for our event at the end of the month. Our first measure of business was to figure out a day that we would host our event. We were deciding between a Saturday where we think we could attract a better crowd but the weather wasn’t the greatest and a Wednesday where we assumed that our crowd wouldn’t be as big as it would be on the weekend but the weather was better. At the end of the meeting we were leaning towards doing it on Wednesday because we wouldn’t want the weather to change the landscape of our event.
We also divided up the task for our project and I was so excited that I was given the task of creating the playlist for the event. I chose a variety of different artist from American artist that I feel like a lot of people would like to hear in a party/festival setting. I normally don’t listen to Japanese music so I planned on asking my roommate for some suggestions. She listens to a lot of Japanese music so I’ll just listen to some of her suggestions and go off that. I initially wanted to perform as a joke but I got cold feet fifteen minutes later. It was a really chill day for my group and we finished up fairly quick to end earlier than the other groups.
A few hours later my really chill day wasn’t so chill after all. A few of my peers and I decided that we wanted to go play basketball on the island. We were really enjoying ourselves but then we noticed that this car was casually cruising by and didn’t think anything of it. A few moments later a cop car came and we initially didn’t pay it any mind until they got out of the car and walked towards us. Language was obviously a barrier as we don’t speak much Japanese but the female officer could speak a little English and she said that we weren’t allowed to play basketball after 8 pm.
We apologized and they proceeded by asking us for our passports and at that point I got nervous. The officers took down our information and as I looked around I noticed that we were all minorities and I immediately thought about how the situation involving six minorities would have played out in America. It could’ve gone a lot differently than it did. Some of the people didn’t have their passports and the police trusted us to walk back to our hotel so they could get it. If it was one thing I could say about Japanese police was thank God they didn’t shoot!
P.S. Alexis Cahill was not present at the time of these activities.
You would think as a non-Japanese speaker communication would be my biggest fear, or maybe being a first time international traveler, it would be transportation or culture shock. Well, for me, my only fear was food. I was convinced I would be living off of steamed rice for a month. Sure, I like rice, but I don’t like rice that much.
I was preparingmyself for a tough time. I ate as much comfort food (chicken tenders mostly) as I could before I was leaving to a world of seafood dominated dishes. I was, am, and most likely will always be a picky eater, and seafood is not a part of my taste palate. The thought of consuming raw fish, seaweed, and whatever else belongs in the ocean gets me sick to my stomach. I was terrified.
Putting all of the apprehensive feelings aside, I decided to branch out and try new foods. I have one word for you, taiyaki. Taiyaki is a fish-shaped (ironic, right?) pancake that is filled with things likered bean paste or custard. It is seriously delicious. They also have savory ones with cheese, but if you’re anything like me the sweet ones are everything. Of course, they won’t sustain me but I have also discovered the wonders of yakisoba and chicken curry with cheese naan.
Japan is full of rich food, and it was not at all what I thought it would be. There’s a lot of fish but sometimes it’s really just a pancake and it changes your life. Don’t let your food fears hold you back from trying new places because, by branching out, you might just find your taiyaki.
One of my favorite things to do is to wander. To just listen to music and see where the road takes me. I think that is why I like traveling. I never know truly what is going to happen: the people I will meet, the places that I will see, and the things that I will do. It’s all a surprise.
For me, it’s hard to wander. I am a control freak. I like having a plan before I do something, then a back-up plan if the first plan doesn’t work out, and I also like to have a back-up plan for my back-up and so forth. In. the 21stcentury, it seems so easy to know what to do and how to do it. We live in the generation of the internet, where you can look up how to do or find almost everything in the world. But I am still searching. I do not know where to go or what to do. I have learned to wander.
A couple days after we arrived in Ishinomaki, I decided that I wanted to just walk. To just walk in the direction of the sun and feel the heat upon my face. The wind was blowing, and I was following. I ended up at a gate. Behind it, was several steep flights of stairs in the middle of a small forest that led to indeterminable location. I went up. I hadn’t come the whole away across the world to stand outside the gate to what would become my favorite place in all of Ishinomaki. As I walked up those stairs, my legs burning from the immense incline, something struck me. I was in Japan. I was over six-thousand miles away from my family and most of my friends and it was all just because I had opened up a random email on some seemingly humdrum day six months ago. If I hadn’t opened up that email and decided to apply to GIEU, I would not be in Japan today. You never know where the sun will take you. You never know where life will take you.
When I reached the top, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty in the peeling red paint and the overgrown grass. It was unquestionably an old, unpopular shrine. But for me, it was a place of silence that I could think—a place to escape the past and the future.
I think that I stayed at the shrine for over an hour. It was some of the most blissful moments of my entire life. To give some background, I am extremely extroverted. But sometimes even I need a break. Sometimes, I need to wander alone. There is a famous quote by J.R.R Tolkien that goes something like this, “not all those who wander are lost.” For me, I don’t think you can’t truly be lost if you have never been found. We are all just wandering.