Paige Long is a seventeen-year-old senior at Scott County High School in Georgetown, Kentucky. She is currently a member of her school’s Biomedical Sciences program and hopes to pursue a career in medicine in the future. She recently spent two weeks with a host family in Japan.
This past summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Japan for a two-week long trip with a handful of classmates from my high school in rural Kentucky. Part of me was quite nervous at first, and the thought of traveling around the world without the parental supervision that had surrounded me throughout my sixteen years made my palms sweaty. Yet I was elated to experience a new culture, new people, new places, and maybe most of all, good food. I was on the verge of what I now realize was a substantial step toward self-discovery, and I could not wait.
The plane ride was long, too long. Fourteen hours without the ability to stretch your legs paired with a whopping one-and-a-half hour of sleep can do a lot to kill a person’s mood. By the time we landed in Nagoya, Japan, I felt like a dead woman walking. Nevertheless, when I first stepped off the plane and caught sight of the non-Romanized characters plastered across walls and signs I had never felt more alive. The culture-shock was substantial. As we trudged our way through customs, bumping into arms and legs left and right, I quickly scanned the room and concluded that out of this mass of people I was the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed person in sight. I felt like an alien, as if I had just arrived from Mars rather than from Lexington, Kentucky.
We arrived at our destination, Tahara-shi in Aichi prefecture, at around five or six in the evening, and were offered a warm welcome from a handful of English teachers from the local high school, Seisho. It was here that I met my host sister, Narumi, and her father, Mr. Hironaka. After a brief introduction, we left for what I would consider my home for the two weeks to come: a quaint, three-story house in downtown Tahara. I was welcomed with a wonderful dinner of various kinds of sushi and salad. My host father gave a toast in my honor. I had never felt more honored. My host family, composed of my host mother, father, sister, brother, and grandparents, were overwhelmingly kind. It was then that I knew that my time in Japan would be life changing.
I had many wonderful experiences during my two weeks in Japan. I made many friends at the local high school, bonded with my host sister, ate delicious food (quite a lot, actually), traveled, and significantly increased my Japanese vocabulary. It was truly a dream. I believe that the most impactful experience, however, occurred about halfway through my trip when my host grandparents, whom I lovingly referred to as Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan, invited me for the first time to the third story of their house in Tahara. I remember climbing up the narrow stairway and seeing a beautiful, ornately decorated shrine placed in the corner of the room. Obaa-chan gestured for me to enter, her eyes crinkling behind her glasses as she smiled widely. I sat on the tatami floor with Ojii-chan. He was meticulously writing a handful of kanji on calligraphy paper and as I observed his work I was stunned by the beauty that he had created. He handed me my own paper, brush, and ink, and suggested that I try my hand at calligraphy. Of course, my work was not nearly as charming as Ojii-chan’s, who I learned was a professional calligrapher with decades of experience. Yet my time spent that evening with Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan— following Ojii-chan’s weathered hands with my eyes as he moved his brush, laughing at Obaa-chan’s jokes, somehow getting a blob of ink on the tip of my nose— was probably the most influential experience I had while in Japan.
That evening, I learned to appreciate that we are all human. Ojii-chan gave me, someone whom he had only known for a week, a token of his kindness that night, a gorgeous panel with a golden border, inscribed with the phrase sekai heiwa: world peace. I had never been more grateful in my life for both the gift and the time that we spent together. The kindness that exuded from my host-grandparents impacted me in a way I had not previously imagined and my heart was truly touched. Ojii-chan’s gift taught me that no matter who we are, what our past might be, or where we may come from, we are all connected by our basic humanity. My time in Japan taught me that kindness, understanding, and love have no borders. This is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
About True Stories from Japan
True Stories from Japan is an occasional blog on the Sasakawa USA website that features reflective essays about travels to and from Japan. Click here for details on how to submit an article for consideration.