The hardest part of leaving Japan

I will leave Japan in a couple of weeks, and I am starting to say goodbye to friends and sensei.

For me, Japan has been a constant rollercoaster between loving it and hating it, sometimes both feelings on the same day.

But a constant has been the amount of inspiration many Japanese awoke in me through their friendship, kindness, patience and hard work.

One of those people was my pottery teacher, Imai-sensei.

As I said in this post, he was 83 years old and was still teaching pottery when I arrived at his studio, and even though I didn’t speak Japanese and he didn’t speak English, he still accepted me.

Last Saturday it was my last day after 2 years, and saying goodbye to him was profoundly moving.

He first gave me this tea bowl made following the traditional bizen technique.

Bizen yaki tea bowl

Bizen is characterized by significant hardness due to high temperature firing, its earthen-like, reddish-brown color, absence of glaze…

The nature of Bizen ware surfaces depends entirely on yohen, or “kiln effects.” The placement of the individual clay workpieces in the kiln causes them to be fired under different conditions, leading to variety.

Because of the clay composition, Bizen wares are fired slowly over a long period of time. Firings take place only once or twice a year, with the firing period lasting for 10–14 days.

The finish is determined by how the potter controls the fire.

During the firing process the potter adds firewood directly into the firebox of the kiln every 20 minutes, day and night. The temperature initially reaches 600 degrees Celsius, and it is increased only gradually in order to avoid cracking the ceramic. The pieces are left in the kiln for 10 days.

Then, it was my turn to show my appreciation.

I didn’t want to give him a piece of pottery, so I used my other artistic skill: playing Ukulele.

Together with my husband, we wrote this lyric using the melody of Pearly Shells.

Imai-sensei, thank you very much

For all the things you did for me

Though again and again I didn’t understand Japanese

You always taught me with patience

I am inspired by your kindness and hard work

I will never forget this fun time with you

And we sang it to him!

I won’t miss many things from Japan, but I will definitely miss many Japanese. Not having these people around will be for sure the hardest part of leaving Japan.

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Hobbies

If you were educated thinking that the most important thing for your future were your grades and the university you went to, then you, much like me and many others, didn’t cultivate your hobbies.

Maybe you took dance classes but quit because studying for your grades was the priority. Maybe you played the piano for many years, but as soon as you started working, you forgot about it.

Because who has the energy to come home after work and keep working on improving his skills in something that doesn’t put food on the table, right?

 However, after 1 year living in Japan and seeing so many elders (and when I say “elders” I mean people close to being 100 years old) having an amazingly active life, I wonder what will happen to the millennials who will probably live up to 100 years old, and many of whom exclusively studied and worked throughout their lives but didn’t cultivate their hobbies?

Japanese elders hike, drive bicycles, teach and practice martial arts, calligraphy, pottery, and some still work.

The fact that some of them are still working in very boring jobs makes me wonder why they do it: To feel useful? To avoid staying at home? Or because their pension is so small that it is not enough to pay the bills?

Which brings me to my Japanese pottery teacher, who is 83 years old, he is vigorous and healthy, and he has an amazing pottery studio. Moreover, instead of avoiding the PIA of having an international student who does not speak Japanese while he does not speak English, he took the challenge of accepting me as his student.

My pottery teacher’s studio in Osaka, Japan.

I don’t know if making pottery during his life has been my teacher’s job or hobby. I don’t know if he still teaches because he loves it or because he needs the money.

What I do know is that teaching pottery beyond his retirement age not only gives him an extra income, it gives him purpose and a sense of accomplishment.

 Given that many millennials face their future with uncertainty and pessimism, that in a not-so-far future we are expecting to live beyond 100 years old while pensions may not be the kind of retirement many dreamed of, cultivating a hobby could be a Plan B.

It’s never too late to start, even in a country where you don’t speak the language. Since I’ve been living and working in Japan, I have more hobbies than ever before: Japanese classes on Fridays, pottery on Saturdays, and contemporary dance classes on Sundays.

And I just sold my first pottery piece! 🙂

3 things I learned from hiking in Japan

Golden Week is a period of 4 Japanese holidays in a row at the beginning of May. During the 2016 Golden Week, my husband and I decided to hike one of the trails (Nakahechi route) of the ancient Kumano Kodo.

For over 1000 years people from all levels of society, including retired emperors and aristocrats, have made the arduous pilgrimage to Kumano. These pilgrims used a network of routes, now called the Kumano Kodo…

Previous to this, together with friends, at the end of March of the same year we hiked the Choishimichi pilgrimage trail that goes to the sacred ancient city of Koyasan.

hikers

In total, we have hiked around 64 km, 40 km in Kumano Kodo and 24 km to Koyasan.

Moreover, apart from pain and blisters, I have taken three valuable lessons with me:

1. Train yourself for the future

Though I have strong legs and I am used to exercising, it is not the same to walk 20km with a small backpack, as I did when I hiked to Koyasan, as to walk 20km with 10kg on your back.

Because after hiking to Koyasan I knew that I was able to walk 20km in approximately 7hrs, I thought that I would be able to walk the Kumano Kodo as well.

However, as the trail turned steeper, I realized that I should have hiked to Koyasan with the same amount of weight to train myself for Kumano Kodo. 

 

2. The adventure starts when you leave your comfort zone

However, I was there, almost at the beginning of the trail and already tired. To quit would have been a relief for my legs, but a sad disappointment for my adventure-loving husband.

I was about to panic when I realized that even there I had options:

Either I stop hiking and start arguing with my husband trying to convince him to come back with me, or…

…I EXPLORE how far I can go.

 

3. There’s bliss beyond the pain

During the Kumano Kodo we walked 40km in 3 days: 18km the first day, 2km the second day, and 20km the last day.

However, because the Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage, it is very popular around the world even if you are not a fan of hiking. So if you do not want to walk to visit its famous shrines, there are some buses and even boats you can take from one shrine to the other, or even along the hiking trail.

And that is what we did the second day. After walking 2km, we took a bus at a near station to a camping site 20km further on, set our tent, left unnecessary weight, and came back the next day by bus to the same bus station. Then, carrying only one lighter backpack, we re-started the last and longest section of the trail.

But as our work life is not free of hurdles, our vacations are no walk in the park either. 

Though the 3rd day was weight-free for me, there was no way to avoid hiking under the rain. And so I did.

I have no words to describe the feelings I had the last 2km we walked to our destination. Walking under the rain, tired as I have never been before, I stopped being aware of my body in pain. I was walking faster, jumping with excitement the roots and the rocks on my way, with my full attention on the trail to be aware of any poisonous snake.

I was clear focus and flow. I had no body, I was only mind. And as we arrived at the main entrance of the last shrine, I cried.

 

The active life of Japanese elders

The other day I went out jogging very early, around 6:15 am. At the corner of a park, I came across with a boy dragging himself to somewhere I didn’t know. “Where would a 6 years old boy go alone this early?” I asked myself.

By the time I arrived to be in front of the park, I was shocked to see more than 50 Japanese people rhythmically exercising together, the boy included.

The sense of community overwhelmed me, and the fact that they were of different ages was inspiring.

 

Later I found out that this is called Radio Taiso, a sequence of exercise broadcasted on the radio that all Japanese know because they do it since their childhood at school.

 

And then we wonder why Japanese people live so long!

 

Absent parents

Tout le monde sait comment on fait les bébés

Mais personne sait comment on fait des papas…

Stromae

 

Nobody should have children they are not willing to take care of, be there for, and love unconditionally.