Sunday, November 6, 2011

Down memory lane in Japan

The other day, here in Japan, we drove down the Chuo Expressway towards the very end of Yamanashi Prefecture, to stay at a lovely hotel designed by a famous Italian architect during Japan's bubble economy era, at the foot of the Yasugatake Mountains.

I'd stayed here once before simply by accident, and I'd liked it so much that we'd decided to stay again. It's nothing over-the-top or ultra-luxurious like the world-famous places we often like to stay in, in our never-ending Travelife, but it's beautiful and comfortable, with nature as the star of the show.


And this week was just perfect for viewing the changing colors of the leaves. Everything around was red and orange, and it was a most picturesque time to be walking the woods in tweed jackets and warm boots, with the air so crisp and clean and the prospect of a good dinner made from fresh local ingredients and a very nice bottle of Burgundy wine to accompany it, to warm the spirit. I couldn't think of a better place to be at that particular time.

Looking at the leaves and walking the forests also made me remember my very first days in Japan, many years ago, when I arrived to study for a year at the International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka, in the suburbs of Tokyo,as part of a junior year abroad program of the Ateneo de Manila.


ICU was famous then for two things: for being sort of a halfway house for Japanese who had lived abroad and who were returning to Japan to integrate into society via university studies, and for foreigners from all over the world who journeyed to Japan at the very peak of its powers and ambitions to dominate the world economically, to study about Japan and Japanese society; and for being one of the most beautiful university campuses in Japan.


On my very first day of arrival at ICU, I was escorted to the 2nd Women's Dormitory, where I was assigned a room on the top floor with two very nice girls -- one looked liked a cat and she came from Hokkaido in the North, so we fondly called her Neko-chan (which means cat), and the other was named Maki, and she came from the South. They both considered themselves lucky to be able to room with a foreigner who didn't speak a word of Japanese, as this meant endless opportunities to brush up on English.

Japan was already a First World country then, but the dormitory itself was a crumbling edifice that was perpetually cold, and it was run in a rather Socialist-style which was a microcosm of Japanese society then: everyone participated in the management of the dormitory and in keeping it clean, and this meant duties cleaning the bathrooms as well.

You must understand that I'd had a very sheltered life as an Ateneo girl and I don't think I'd even fixed a bed in my life. And here I was being asked to attend endless meetings about whether the leaves should be swept to the left side or the right side of the entrance hall, and to clean bathrooms at least once a week.


The first seemed like a completely useless exercise to me -- they would go on for hours meeting in the dormitory common room, as every single thing had to be decided as a group -- in the midst of so many more important things in life; and the second was something I disliked intensely.

I was forever trying to get out of both, and that certainly didn't endear me to some of the senior girls who took the management of the dormitory very seriously. But that's a story for later, and later on I solved this problem by keeping my room at the dorm simply for my luggage and books, and then taking an apartment in town, just a few blocks from the Imperial Palace, so that I could learn more about Tokyo rather than about campus life.


But on that very first day, I remember that even before I'd unpacked, I decided to take a walk and get a feel of the campus that would be my home for the next ten months. And the first thing that struck me was the sheer beauty of Japan and my ICU campus in autumn. My first walk took me to the Japanese gardens of the school which had a beautiful tea house and a large maple tree. I can never forget the wondrous feeling that overcame me as I finally realized I had left my reality in Manila -- at least temporarily -- for a completely different world that I would now have to make a life out of.

Remembering all this as if these happened only a few years ago made me very sentimental indeed. It was a huge trial at first -- I still remember the homesickness and the tears I shed when I burnt the first blouse I ever tried to iron; but I also remember the many kindnesses of the people around me and the things I learned, the friendships I forged, and the events that changed the course of my life together, and I'm sure all for the better.

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


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