Writing this one from the Airport. Comfortably seated on an uncomfortable seat in a smoky restaurant – with a half-cooked chicken sandwich and two beers inside me – I am feeling surprisingly content. And strangely excited. I have been on this seat a million times before…and foreign travel has since long ceased to bring any feelings remotely resembling excitement in me. But this time, it is different. I am returning to the place where I first learned to be self-sufficient adult. The place which made me – pardon the sexist overtones – a “man”. Yes, Japan was my first stint in a foreign place as an adult – and boy was it “foreign” in every sense of the word!
I still remember carrying two large suitcases filled with everything my obviously apprehensive mother could think of – from saucepans and pressure-cooker to Parachute hair-oil and a six-pack of Rin bars. (“What if the Japanese detergents don’t suit Indian clothes?” was her indignant response to my protests.) So there I was tall, dark and hairy standing outside the gates of Narita airport with my worldly belongings, gazing in (to steal a phrase from my boss) dumb agony at the small, busy, scurrying, pale, mongoloid world around me. And dumb agony was most of what I could muster in the subsequent 12 months I was there. My employer had selected a comfortable little hamlet called “Nakamichi” as my place to live…and I am not exaggerating when I call it a little hamlet. With a population of 435 circa 1999 – my arrival in the village was an event of unprecedented significance in the hamlets surprisingly long history. I remember my colleague showing me an article in the local newspaper (incidentally placed right next to the obituaries) the day after I arrived, which proclaimed that I was the first foreigner in Nakamichi in 186 years. Jeez – that’s pressure on you! I was soon the local celebrity (or village idiot or one-man-freak-circus) with children often sneaking upto my ground floor apartment windows to gaze at the “gaijin” or foreigner. The place I used to work was in the neighbouring town – which meant a 30 min walk twice everyday.
As I used to walk by green and yellow fields of pumpkin and sweet-potato (aparently sweet potatoes from Nakamichi were famed far and wide) – I was cordially greeted by old bent farmers. “Ohayo Gozaimasu” (good morning) they used to call out from under their large straw hats, raising their sickles menacingly in the air – grimacing with toothless menace. I used to shout back – “Good Morning” – cementing the fact that I was indeed Gaijin and keeping the myth alive. As the days wore on – and I slowly got used to complete social isolation – I learnt to steel myself against the silence. Silence which was deafening at times – only to be broken by the extremely loud speaker attached on top of the village hall…which announced births, deaths, divorces, marriages at infrequent intervals. I ate what I got, I listened to whatever they played on the radio, I watched english movies dubbed in Japanese – and tried to lip read. I did attempt to make some friends – but to find someone who spoke the language of the queen – was as rare as an Indian in Nakamichi. And my attempts to learn Japanese were thwarted by an inherent ineptitude for new languages.
So to spend time, I thought, and I thought and I thought some more. And a lot of what I thought – and a lot of what I discovered about my own self – is something that has made me whatever I am today. I learnt a lot about Japanese culture – the importance they placed on honour and the beauty of ritual and sacrifice. Sure enough – I was not overtly sad when I left Japan to head back home a year later. But since then – a small voice inside me has been calling me back to Nippon. It is 9 years since that voice has been calling… unfortunately it was in Japanese… 🙂 Only now I understand what it has been saying. “Come back where you were reborn – because rebirth is what you seek.”
I am excited…and I will soak in every moment of this visit… will of course keep the blog updated!