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Monday, February 22, 2010

The Long Journey Home

So it took me 8 years and a long 12 hour ride to finally make it back to Saiki.  Junko, my old co-worker, was picking me up with her three little kiddies. The last time I saw her, she was a beautiful bride, 2004. Now she had 3 little ones. It didn't seem like that much time had passed but she already had 3 kids so obviously, enough time had passed!

I was filled with so many mixed emotions coming back.  Would the town's people, my old co-workers remember me?  The kids, how big would they be?  Some of the smallest children that I had fond memories of and who *possibly* remembered me were about 4-5 years old when I they would be about 13-15....would I see the ex? Would everyone tell me that I got fat?

That was actually my biggest concern.  Japanese people are very conscious of weight and even though we may be a 'healthy' weight in America, we would be considered obese in Japan.  Some of the bigger Japanese bodies would be considered petite in the U.S.  I made a promise to myself that if and when I ever made it back, I would go back the same weight that I left...I had gained close to 25 pounds after I left 8 years ago; doesn't help that I was working in the food business and food quality was always my top concern!  Unfortunately, that was a promise to myself that I couldn't keep and I think I only lost 5 pounds so was still 20 pounds heavier than when I left!

Luckily and to my surprise, everyone said that I looked the same and hadn't changed a bit!  That was odd as back home, everyone thought I was in my late thirties, sometimes even, I have to believe that it was because of my job and my responsibilities that made people think that I was 10+ years older than my age (just agree with me here!).  Only one lady, the preschool teacher, said that I looked fat! I wouldn't have minded if it was someone that I spent a lot of time with but I rarely remember this lady...she looked familiar but I couldn't place her, she was the only one who outright called me fatso. I was prepared to hear it from everyone so I suppose if it was just her, it wasn't too bad.

Junko had married a guy in the neighboring town, Tsurumi, so we were not spending the night in Naokawa. Instead, we would go out the following morning to deliver my crab sets and other gifts.  I was lucky to have been able to ship my entire $550 worth of stuff to Junko's house all for only Y1200.  It was great because it was just too much and I could ship everything for one flat price.  The omiyage arrived the following morning and then I went through it to divide and figure out what was going to who and where.

Our first stop was my old work place...everything was different!  Five years ago, the village had joined up with 7 neighboring towns and villages to join the city of Saiki.  Since then, many of the people that worked in the local village office were transferred and the staff got cut in half.  I got there just around lunch time so moreso, the place looked empty.  When I walked in, many smiled and greeted me but really didn't know how to respond to seeing me there.  I wasn't sure if they remembered me by the way they acted (usually, you'd think you'd be excited to see someone you hadn't seen for 8 years) but I received many reserved smiles....I want to think this is because they are Japanese and have a difficult time expressing their emotions...they don't even give hugs for God's sake!  Just as we were leaving, I flagged down my old supervisor, Tanaka-san, who took a lot of heat for my actions while I was there.  Kumi the office secretary and former track team mate also stopped by to say 'hi'.

We did our runs around the village dropping off gifts. I stayed over at Junko's house the first two nights and on the second night, two old co-workers and former team mates (we were all on the village track team together), Keiko and Kumi, came over for a crab hot pot dinner!  It was great to reconnect with old friends and it seemed so precious to have had built such relationships so long ago...even though so much time had passed, I was still warmly received, I was a friend for life.

I was in Saiki for a total of 8 nights so for the other nights, I divided my time in 3 other homes, spending two nights at each home.  All of the families that I stayed with were people that I had become close with during my time there.  Although there were many more, these families were the ones who really took me in and I had no problem asking them to put a roof over my head AFTER arriving.  Yes, I'm last minute!  Of course, everyone took me in graciously and treated me to such great feasts.

The third and forth nights I spent with the Ashikari family.  It's actually only just Mr. and Mrs. now as Mr.'s parents had now since passed and all the kids were far away from home, the oldest as far as Beijing!  Ashikari-kacho Department Chief, was the title in which I knew him as, always had an interest in foreign culture and people though he speaks almost no English.  His oldest son has spent the last 10+ years in China working and his second child, his daughter, Yuko, worked in Malaysia for some time.  He always knew everything that was going on around town and if I needed something, consider it done by him!  Nearly 10 years later, he was now an elected member of the Saiki City

Assembly but, I could not stop calling him kacho so that was how I still called him even though it was probably rude since he had since held a higher title...oh well, he knew I meant well.  One of the highlights here was that I got to connect to their wireless connection! and I got to eat shika sashi 鹿刺し, or deer sashimi.  That was a favorite of mine.  In Naokawa, there is so much wild deer in the area that many hunt the deer and prepare it as sashimi. It's enjoyed with raw ginger and soy sauce.  I thought this was a traditional Japanese dish but many other Japanese were shocked that I ate this!  Although the people in Naokawa think that it's common throughout Japan, even people in other areas that have deer (Hokkaido) were surprised but maybe it was because they were city folk. I think even the city folk in Oita were surprised that we ate this!

The fifth and sixth nights, I stayed with the Shibata family.  I had first gotten to know them because their son, Masato, who was only five at the time had entered my Halloween costume contest and was so adorably cute that I declared him the winner!  Since then, I had become close friends with the mother, Junko, and the family.  Masato was now 15! A young man!  I was afraid to see him because I had heard that he was already taller than me!  While I lived there, Junko had also hired me to teach Masato English.  Accordingly, he is one of the best English students and his pronunciation is far better than the typical Japanese students; I'll humbly take credit for that! Their older daughter Kaho who was only 9 when I first met her was now 19! A beautiful young lady who could very well be dating! YIKES!  While I was over at the Shibatas, Junko treated me to to a nice kaiseki dinner 懐石料理 or traditional Japanese course meal. It was amazing! Everything so fresh! Later that night, we also went to a bar that I would often frequent.  I needed to eat my nasugyoza or egglant pot stickers; the fillings of a traditional pot sticker, sandwiched between pieces of eggplant and then deep fried in tempura batter and eaten after being dipped in a delicious lemon/shoyu sauce! yum!  I forced myself to eat it even though I was so full!

The following day, we also got to meet up with Kaho and spend a few hours at the karaoke box together. Ah, karaoke!  While at the Shibatas, I got to convince grandma to make me her famous potato pottage which was one of my favorite dishes she'd make (back when I used to tutor Masato, I would always stick around for dinner and her potato pottage and pumpkin pottage were my favorites!).  I also helped Masato study English for his high school entrance examination; just for old time's sake!  Amazing how much more English he knew now, 10 years later...

The last two nights I spent with the Kazato family.  The hippest people in the entire village!  A young couple, Takashi and the wife, Rie, just one year older than me, are the cutest couple you'll ever find!  I always tell them that when I find my life partner, I want my relationship to be like theirs.  They love each other so much and always enjoy each other's company.  I don't think they've ever had an argument before! The two actually run one of the barber shops on the main road. Takashi is the 4th generation to cut hair in his family.  The father is also another favorite of mine and always took me in under his wing with so much affection.  The father is also the newspaper distributor in the village.  Takashi also wakes up early every
morning to help his father deliver papers.  Grandpa     Kazato is also alive and well and still cute as ever!  Mrs. Kazato made me a huge feast with my menu requests of karaage Japanese boneless fried chicken and  tori tebasaki Japanese style chicken wings.  Later that night, some of my former students also came by.  I didn't have regular interactions with the students there but one of my big responsibilities was working as a Cultural Ambassador and taking the junior high students to Hawaii in August (did this twice for the two years I was there).  Although we only spent 5 days in Hawaii, the students and I have a shared experience that will forever hold us connected. Takashi and Rie also have a new addition to their family...well not quite new, Marion is already 5 and so cute with his little b-boy style.  They drive an Escalade (on the American side) and are truly an anomaly in this village of now 2,400 (there were close to 3,000 when I was there!).  Prior to their Escalade, they had a 1963 (I think?) Impala. 

Other highlights back home was to eat my absolutely FAVORITE Hida Bento or as I like to call it, Hida Ben.  Tomi-nei (nei = older sister) is a sharp tongued lady who either loves you or hates you.  Lucky for me, she loves me!  She will tell anyone off (so don't piss her off) but is one of the best cooks in the town if you ask me!  She runs a little catering business where she provides box lunches to the workers in the town office.  For only Y500 she'll make some of the healthiest and tastiest and best value meal you'll ever have in your life!  I was so excited to eat this and got to do this on the third day back in town.  Lucky I did when I did because her oldest grandson, Yutaro, had just got a job offer with JR (Japan Railways) and so they would be taking a 'graduation trip' that weekend and wouldn't get back until the day I would be leaving.  I would have DIED if I couldn't eat a Hida Ben!  That day, our menu was Pork Cutlet which was perfect as ever! 

The following day, I went over and got to visit with Tomi-nei, and the rest of the rest of the family and Shohei, the youngest who was only 3 or 4 when I left was 14! But, the little one still remembered me! They all mentioned how they wanted to go to Hawaii and mentioned that they would probably go for Yutaro's wedding.  Wait, Yutaro is getting married?  "No" they replied, Yutaro just wanted to get married in Hawaii (even the neighbor who was going with them on the graduation trip, who I could not meet because he was working told me that they would see me at Yutaro's wedding!).  I told Yutaro, "yes, you can get married in Hawaii, but please let me get married first!" So now the race between Regina and Yutaro on who can get married first is ON!

I also got to see Hanae who probably had the best English speaking skills (and still does) in the town and helped me tremendously with booking and organizing my route back to Tokyo.  I also was in Oita during Chinese New Year, February 14, so I got to attend the Japan-Chinese Friendship Club New Year's Celebration.  I got to see some old faces that I had almost forgotten about, ladies that I had spoke and studied Chinese with!  And even my old Chinese teacher...I think he was my teacher...if memory serves me right...

I also got to see the Ando family.  Ando-san, who is a hilarious crack-up still looked the same but all her three children were grown!  The youngest who was now 15, I did not recognize at all!  All three grown up to be quite good-looking!  They came out to see me on my last night and the five of us and Hanae hung out outside talking in the cold, reminiscing about old times. I had them play Tap Tap Revolution on my iphone and Masaki, the older son who now plays guitar was saying how he wished he could have played for me.  Instead, we sang a few lines to Mr. Big 'To Be With You' out in the quiet and still night of Naokawa.  It was cute that they finally understood and knew what
America was! Back then it was just a fantasy thatthey had heard about; now they were old enough to make a connection. Lovely. This was what my job was about, building bridges and raising international awareness; though I think I learned much more than they did!

I also went back for cookie shu クッキーシュウ or cream filled pastry with a cookie type crust.  This was one of my favorite desserts and it still tasted the same for Y158!  Also on my last night, my old supervisor and his whole family as well as Junko and her 2/3 kids and Kumi, came to take me out to dinner at Rower's.

I wanted to eat my チーズハンバーグCheese Hamburger Steak and Tanaka-san and his entire family as well as Junko, her two children and Kumi all came for my last dinner in Naokawa.  Sadly, the son was rude as ever and the steak didn't quite taste the same. I was disappointed in this and will have to take this off my 'must do list' when visiting Naokawa again. I also got to take a dip in the local onsen - Naokawa Kosen Center. For Y500, it was great though I do need to suggest to them to bring in better quality shampoo and body soap! I was also able to meet up with my ex which was a little awkward but ended up being really nice.  It had been 8 years since I last saw him and both of us had changed and grown so much. Many of my fondest memories were spent with him and it was great that we could still reconnect and be friends.

The biggest change of  all was that they FINALLY completed the construction of the freeway. So now the once one hour plus drive to the big city - Oita - was now only 30 minutes away on the freeway. Saiki also FINALLY got a McDonald's! You know you're big time when you have a McD's in your neighborhood! It was like a whole new town; I felt like the streets that I once commanded and navigated with such confidence was now new territory.

A whole week spent in Naokawa and I pretty much got to do everything that I had wanted.  Met up with almost everyone that I wanted to except for a few friends though I did get to connect with a few of them by phone.  The reality was that 8 years had passed!  I guess, I had felt that not much time had passed and I would still be able to go back and everything would be the same! I'd still be able to go out and drink with the same friends, go on a date with the ex, see all the same sights, but everything was different! Although it only felt like yesterday that I left, it was really almost a decade ago. EVERYONE was married and everyone had children!  I had a small sliver of hope that there would be at least ONE ELIGIBLE bachelor in town but nope, all were taken. Oh, Chika did come to visit me on my last day there, he was still available...but way too young for me (29!)

On my last day there, I woke up bright and early and walked over to the train station which was right across the street from the Kazato house.  I would be taking the 6:51AM train, one of only 3 trains that makes a stop in Naokawa.  Most of the other riders would be high school students, I wonder if I would recognize any of them and if they would me.  The younger Kazato family, Hanae, her mother and Kumi all made it to see me off at the train station.  Although I was sad to leave, I wasn't ovecome by the emotional sadness I had when I left 8 years ago.  I guess I knew that I would come back soon and this will forever be home.  Made it out to Saiki and was greeted by Junko who had made it to spend some time with me before my train to Oita-city.  It was so nice to be loved by all these people (even though they have a weird way of showing it); I only managed to get half of a hug from Junko. *chuckle*

I was given so many gifts too, by everyone! Even though I didn't want to take it because it would be additional luggage, it was so sweet! Tomi-nei  even gave me traveling money!  I was so touched by everyone's generosity and the best gift I am bringing back, RICE, all 5 cups of Naokawa rice!

I was on my way to Shikoku where I would make a visit to my last onsen before I would take the night train back up to Tokyo.  On my way to Shikoku, I met Kylie and Andrew, the first foreigners I met on this trip! Kylie shared with me her blog and that she wrote in it everyday to update her daughter.  Yeah, that was the plan for me too but I realized it's too much work and I don't really have the time and money or a daughter!  Kylie did have a small notebook that inspired me to pick one up when I go back to the states for my real Round The World trip.  But then there's the iPad coming out soon...hmmm....anyway, I made it on to Kylie's blog so check it out! Her adventures are entertaining and informative too!  Although she's done with her trip, if you get bored of my stories, go read hers!


Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime is actually the birth place of my maternal grandmother. Although I had been here once before, I had never seen the city in the daylight.  The last time I was there was because I was invited to help out at a friend's event and a group of us went out to party in Matsuyama at night.  Matsuyama was a quaint town.  Street cars ran through the town and it just had a very 1950s feel to it. I imagined Tokyo to once look this way.  Thanks to Hanae, I had a map and knew that I needed to take the street car to Dogo Onsen one of the nation's oldest and most famous hot springs, some say to have healing powers.  I was really only going here because the girl on the ride to Sapporo said she was and thought I may as well since I had the rail pass. I didn't realize how famous it was!

The baths were nice and was only Y400 for the basic entry and two other tiers of entry prices but the prices went up considerably. I decided since I only had limited time, I'd just go into the first main bath.  I didn't hear what the lady said when she asked me if I had soap and was shocked to go in and see that there was no shampoo left out as is normally done in all other baths!  I was going to have to break a cardinal rule of onsen bathing, not washing off before entering.

The bath was one of the most crowded baths I have ever seen! At least 25 (naked) women all squeezing into a tiny pool.  And the older ladies the most aggessive, pushing people out of their way, reserving the best spots for themselves. I even saw one lady stretching while everyone else squeezed next to each other; you'd think she was getting ready to run an Olympic race the way she stretched her hamstrings! Geez! I felt bad about going into the baths un-washed but there were a group of high school/college girls who also found themselves in the same predicament.  Aloud they announced that they had no soap to wash so were just going to go in...I suppose many found themselves in this situation so the water was probably contaminated already!  I found myself sliding in right after them.

I usually try to stay in for at least an hour or so (mainly to get my money's worth) but this place was way too small. I decided I would try to go out and see if they would let me pay the difference to the next entry price which was Y1200. Went out to the front and the ticket collector said it wasn't possible, I said 'okay.' She quickly realized that I was not Japanese and told me to hold on, she would try to see what she could do.  She got approval that I would be given the other ticket for the price difference of Y800.  Damn foreigners can get away with anything in Japan!

Pretty glad I did this because the second level bath was less crowded.  They also gave you a yukata 浴衣Japanese robe and soap!  I got to enjoy myself much more in this second tub especially since there was only one other lady there.  The size of the bath was at least 1/4 the size of the other one so having only one other person there was a relief. 

After the bath, there was a resting area where they served you green tea and rice crackers.  Just my luck, I don't drink tea! I don't know if it was the fact that I actually paid for this tea but I was compelled to try it! To my surprise, I actually thought it was not bad! I drank my first cup of tea, willingly (probably first time ever) here.  I was shocked myself!  Later as I was about to leave, they asked if I had done the tour? I didn't know there was a tour.  It was already about 5:45PM and I only had about 55 minutes before my train was leaving; it would take me about 20 minutes to the station...I figured I had some time to spare...

Although the tour was not entirely done, I excused myself at 5:50PM because I still  needed to make my way to the street car station which was about a 3-5 minute walk away. Before heading off, I tried to locate my locker key because I didn't want to have left it behind only to waste time and have to come back though I knew I had it in my bag somewhere...searched my bag for what seemed like 20 minutes and FINALLY found my key.  Ran to the street car station to make up for lost time.  Just then a train had already left but another one just pulled in. I checked the destination and it read:  Matsuyama-Shi Eki  松山市駅 Matsuyama City Station. I saw the word 'station' so I knew I was good.

Played on my iphone on the ride back, most of the stops sounded familiar.  When we reached our destination though, nothing looked familiar. I asked one of the ladies that also got off the car where the station was and she repeated 'Matsuyama-Shi Eki' is there; that seemed odd to me that she answered the way she did.  Nothing looked familiar but I found my way to the ticket booth.  It was 6:22PM I showed the station attendant my ticket and asked him if I was at the right station.  Just as I had feared, he said 'no,' I was at the wrong station!  I asked how I could get to the right station and if I could make it in time; I had no idea where I was.  He said if I hopped in a cab, I could possibly make it.  I ran as if I were running the 100M race all over again, hopped in the cab and asked the taxi driver to step on it. I told him I had a 6:40PM train to catch...I was panting worried I wouldn't make it. If I didn't make it, I may as well have stayed in Naokawa longer!  How was I going to get back? My rail pass was expiring that day so I would have to pay for my way back!  I am unemployed!

The taxi driver didn't seem to anxious and informed me that many people make this mistake.  Well, I wish I was told that there were TWO stations in this city; the other station is called Matsuyama JR Eki 松山JR駅!  Luckily, the drive was only 6 minutes away.  Just as we could see the station, the light turned red. I told the driver I would get out there and again, I made a mad dash to the station.  I had to cross the street and then run underground to the other side of the road! Ran to the locker to retrieve my bag and made it to the platform at 6:30PM! Amazing! Thank God! I even had a few minutes to spare to look at the food.  I had been on trains all day that I had no time to stop for food!  All I had eaten along the way was some bread given to me by Ando-san and a rice ball I had picked up. I was so hungry! Didn't find anything good so got on the train.

Finally made it to Takamatsu and wanted to eat cup ramen but the lady advised me that if I went to the convenience store, I could possibly miss my train.  Then, all that running around in Matsuyama would have been in vain!  So, although I was hungry, decided to stay near the train and see if there was anything at the little kiosk to eat. Luckily the lady told me that she had one more rice ball set Y600, I took it!  Made it on to the sleeper train bound for Tokyo!  This was probably the nicest sleeper train ever with actual little sections that made you feel like you had some privacy. There were also private rooms (I believe with actual beds) and a shower room. I was quite surprised wtih all this since Hanae had confirmed that there would only be seats. Yay, I could have a proper sleep that night, which I did!

My rail pass journey, taking me across four islands had come to an end! I had so much fun and got to pack in so much in very little time.  Although I wished that I could have stayed in Naokawa longer, I'm sure any longer would have been too long (especially since there were only 3 trains going through the town). It was a fabulous blast to the past and I am now even more grateful of all the relationships that I have here. I wonder when I'll be back...The 'plan' is to come back next time with my husband and/or children...I hope that will happen as that was supposedly the 'plan' for this trip! Hopefully it won't be another 10 years.

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