As usual, breakfast today was far too much for me to eat, so I promised my host mother that I would save the sweet bread for the long train ride ahead. At the table, we were generally silent as we finally realized that our time with our host family was up; Urumu was already getting ready to go to school and say her final farewell to us. In a way, I was glad to be done with the higher levels of focus and energy needed to do well in a homestay. At the same time, I couldn’t have asked for a kinder and more welcoming family to stay with here in Hirado, and for that I am truly grateful. As I finished up my egg rolls, yogurt, and sandwiches, I sat hoping that my next few homestays would go just as well.
Our farewell to Urumu was sad and heartfelt, but we couldn’t hold her off from getting to school on time, so with some hugs and her presentation of handwritten letters to us, we said our goodbyes. The letters, which she had set aside a lot of time to write, were origami folded to serve as both letter and envelope in one. The first line read, in English, “If you can’t understand this letter, ask 出口ショー[Deguchi Schau; our teacher].” That made me chuckle.
After Urumu left, we spent a short time making sure that we’d packed all of our things (and began strategizing how to carry the 10 lbs. of food that host mama had given to each of us as a gift). Once our suitcases were outside, we loaded them into the car. Taylor hopped in, and I took one last, long look at the water, the castle, the small neighborhood, and the shrine in the woods that I’d wanted to visit but never had time. I heard the chugging of water between the ships and the dock that reminded me so strongly of my home-away-from-home on the Flagship Niagara, and I savored the saltwater smell for just a second before I too shut the car door and put the quaint little Hirado behind me.
All of the other host families arrived with my friends soon after we got to the train station. We took dozens of pictures together, but each host family’s face fell just a little as soon as the clanging of the train emerged in the distance. Taking our place on the platform, we gave our final hugs and then dragged our suitcases onto the small train. It was the typical, movie-like farewell as they all stood on the platform waving, shrinking into the distance as we waved right back from the train windows.
For the rest of the day, our lives consisted of trains. Lots of trains. Out of service trains that made us wait for more trains. And then some trains. Did I mention trains?
Thankfully, Taylor and Brian keeping me company made the ride a lot more entertaining. On one particularly long shinkansen ride, I dug around for my laptop and used my tray table to play a game of shogi (Japanese chess; trust me, the rules and pieces are A LOT different than American chess). Brian watched, and I explained it to him. After I won the shogi game, I played a few rounds of Japanese maajan (mahjong; once again, not the traditional mahjong that people imagine as tile-matching. Rather, it is the competitive sort that is a little bit like gin rummy.) until my battery was low. Thankfully, there was an outlet next to the seat, so I plugged in and then had an idea.
“Hey Taylor,” I said, turning her way. “Have you ever played Limbo?”
“You mean that game that’s all black and white, a sidescroller?” said Brian.
I nodded. “Yup, that’s the one.”
“I don’t think so,” said Taylor.
A few clicks later, the title screen of Limbo was flickering on my computer. “Do you want to try it?” Taylor nodded, so I handed my computer to her and the fun began.
Mostly, Brian and I were smiling because we knew how to solve the game’s puzzles and Taylor didn’t. That and the fact that Taylor was not too pleased with being snatched up by giant spiders in-game. Her frustration noises are hilarious.
Thankfully, she kept at it even though she was frustrated. Brian and I, in the midst of our conversation, were throwing obscure hints at her; she did eventually manage to make it all the way to the end of the demo version. By that time, the shinkansen ride was nearly over, so I packed up my laptop and prepared to disembark.
For lunch, we stopped in the train station and found a small tonkatsu (fried pork) restaurant. You could make the sesame dressing yourself by crushing the seeds and then mixing, but I chose not to – I’m not necessarily the biggest sesame fan in the world.
The tonkatsu was super heavy on the stomach, but Schau-sensei was right in pointing out that the cabbage helps it to digest better. Still, I couldn’t finish it.
Does that surprise anyone? It shouldn’t.
It’s not that I’m picky, it’s that I just eat less than other people. Most other people. Virtually all other people, actually. Yet despite this, I ❤ food.
After some more train rides, we arrived in Kyoto – my dream city. Kyoto was a huge hub of activity in the Tokugawa shogunate, and considering that I harbor quite an interest in Japanese military history (especially the 1600-1890 range), Kyoto was one of the top spots that I wanted to be. Unfortunately, the kind of touring that I’d want to do in Kyoto is not quite what my peers would enjoy, so I’ll come back in a few years and do my own tour by myself. It’d be a more Shinsengumi-oriented tour focused more in Mibu than in central Kyoto, actually.
Anyway, let me take this moment to complain, as it’s one of my favorite pastimes. How on earth can I be surrounded by so many inconsiderate people who have no perception of where they are in order to not run in to people? Josh bullies his way through our group to the front even though he has no suitcase, and Sarah is too lazy to drag her bag so she rolls it and gets in everyone’s way and just generally doesn’t pay attention. How about you take the headphones out, stop checking your phone, and pay attention. It’s really not difficult NOT to run into people when you’re traveling, but certain members of my group manage to succeed in doing just that. On a regular basis. Sometimes I wonder why I travel with these people.
All of that aside, however, the trip has been immensely rewarding so far. In a way, I do miss the freedom of traveling by myself, but it has been nice to not worry about arranging my own lodging and transportation for once. We settled into the fantastically beautiful Matsubaya Ryokan (complete with koi pond!), where the hosts greeted us warmly upon our arrival and we passed by a whiteboard that said, in English, “Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Calvin College!”
However, I can’t deny that all of us were extremely tired – an entire day of travel is always exhausting despite the seeming relaxation that it should provide. We all agreed that we’d rather just skip going out to dinner somewhere and go to a conbini instead. Thankfully, there was a 7-eleven nearby, and I grabbed some pasta and a mochi dango and some sort of fruit drink and called it good.
Once we returned to the ryokan, we all gathered in Brian’s room. Earlier in the day, we’d all agreed that it was simply pitiful that he had never seen a single Studio Ghibli film. However, we were at odds with which one to show him; Spirited Away is certainly a classic, but it’s a bit eccentric for many people, especially those relatively new to Japanese culture (though personally it’s one of my favorites!). We considered Princess Mononoke but thought that its “save the forest” message may be a little too hit-you-over-the-head for a first-timer that doesn’t know how to view Miyazaki movies yet. We also ruled out Ponyo, as it’s a bit shallower plot-wise and mostly just focused on being cute. While that’s great sometimes, it’s not what we were aiming for now. I put a ban on the older Miyazaki movies like Pom Poko (don’t get me wrong, the older ones are still great!), so we settled on the compromise of showing Howl’s Moving Castle because it’s a true Studio Ghibli film, but it’s based off of an American novel. I love the movie, so I had no complaints, and I thought it was a good blend of American and Japanese to initiate the first timer. Unfortunately, the speakers weren’t as loud as we would have liked, so Brian’s overall impression of the movie wasn’t as accurate as it should have been. He enjoyed it, but he didn’t seem eager to immediately watch another Ghibli film.
Give him some time, though. It’ll sink in and he’ll go after Spirited Away and Mononoke.
When the movie ended, it was nearly 11:30, so we decided that we’d better head off to bed in order to be rested for the next day. As Taylor and I snuggled into our blankets on our futons, I smiled with excitement as I looked forward to my first day in Kyoto.
Things I wonder: Did my host mother feel relieved that I left because I was so much work?