A week ago today, Japan was rocked by a massive earthquake – an 8.9 magnitude quake (the fourth largest recorded since 1900) that caused a devastating tsunami to obliterate entire towns and cities, leaving many people dead and many more missing.
I first heard the news on the radio, as I lay in bed fighting the urge to “snooze” for another ten minutes. My eyes popped open. I sat up straight. My heart raced. A few seconds later, I heard Yves’s voice coming from the living room: “Oh my God. You have to come see this.”
I had never seen anything like it – a seemingly neverending wave slithering its way out of the ocean and onto land, flooding fields, submerging homes, causing bridges to collapse and cars to be carried away by the sheer power of water. It looked like a scene from a science-fiction film. It was hard to believe that these images were real, that those cars that bobbed on the water the way rubber duckies bob in the tub had, only seconds earlier, been filled with people going about their daily routines.
How quickly a day can change. Imagine being on that freeway - heading to work, sipping on coffee, singing whatever song – and looking out your side window. Imagine seeing that wave breaking the boundary between earth and sea and doing the thing that water does best: flow downward. Imagine the panic.
I was glued to the TV all of Friday morning, completely awe-struck, yet again, by the forces of Nature and heartbroken for the people of Japan.
I have an affinity for these people and their country. It was my country, not that long ago. It was my home. They were my family.
Oh, Japan. I hadn’t thought about you in quite some time. But this week, you were always on my mind.
I pull out my old journals and suddenly it is 2004 and I am getting on a plane and flying towards Adventure. I am young and brave, leaving behind the familiar, fueled by the irrespressible (some might say irresponsible) need to lose myself in the unknown.
It was the inner call of the wild that made me pack my bags and say goodbye - that untamed part inside of me that feeds on change and challenge and unruly encounters and shaky ground. It was something else too – the desire to dip my toes in foreign soil, breathe in unusual scents, taste unfamiliar foods, and be the wanderer in a strange new world, the moving dot on the map.
Revisiting these old journals feels like re-discovering an old friend – a 23 year-old girl brimming with giddiness, trusting her “illogical” instincts, craving independence and self-sovereignty, wise in her choices but naïve in her reasons for choosing. It is with a mixture of nostalgia and elation that I realize I love this girl.
With this younger me by my side I plunge into the pages of my past and I remember it all. The euphoria of the first few weeks – the brightness of the Asakusa sun, the wetness in the air that made even my stick-straight hair go frizzy. I remember the Harajuku kids, expressing their inner realities, and the bright red temples, amidst the bright green trees.
I recall my first earthquake (October 7, 2004). It was small, but big enough to wake me from sleep, rattle my bones, my nerves, and the plates in my cupboard.
I relive my trek to the holy summit of Mount Fuji, my love affair with Hiroshima, my dear snow monkeys in Nagano, and the onsens of Beppu.
I think of the day the sakura bloomed, dotting the country in pink, and I am reminded of the cherry blossom’s purpose: to remind us mortals of the delicate and transient nature of life.
I remember the food and how much I loved to eat.
I remember the people – those that opened their hearts and homes to let me in. So many wonderful people, so much cross-cultural connection.
I remember Toshiko, my “Japanese Mama” as she liked to call herself. My Okasan.
She was my neighbour and she approached me one day as I rode my bike up the street. She took my hand and shook it firmly. Then she said “To…shi…ko” and pointed to herself. “Come…my…house.”
That was the beginning.
Toshiko’s English was only slightly better than my extremely poor Japanese but, somehow, we got each other.
She was 63 years old and her eyes sparkled like a child’s. She wore dresses and wide-brimmed straw hats and superstar sunglassses. She loved purses and owned over a hundred, though she told me this in confidence and made me promise never to divulge it to her husband. She had recently moved to Shin-Toride from Tokyo and desperately missed the bustle of the city. She loved drinking beer with dinner, but always made sure she had some red wine for me.
She called herself “plain” because she had never had a job outside of the home, but she was anything but plain. She was a being of remarkable goodness, who took pleasure in taking care of others, who found joy in the simplest tasks, and who never, ever complained. She was also a tea ceremony Master who had studied the craft for over 25 years. To me, she was both an artist of the highest calibre and my closest friend.
I’ll never forget the day my mom called from Canada and Toshiko answered the phone. My mom was trying to explain that she was "Vicki’s mother" and would like to talk to Vicki. All Toshiko could understand were the words "Vicki’s mother" and she kept saying, “Yes, yes…I am Bicki’s mama.” So much laughter followed that phone call.
Japan was indeed an Adventure. I go through my journals and I marvel at the things I saw and did and at the vital lessons I learned. But it is the people I remember the most - the humanness that can brigthen the dreariest day, the intimate sharing that can occur, in spite of a language barrier, over a steaming cup of tea.
Anywhere can be home. Home is not a house made of bricks or a bedroom painted pink. Home is that feeling of comfort and joy that fills us when we are in the right place, with people we love, and we feel safe.
As I sit here typing this post, the news on TV is devastating: over 6000 dead, 10 000 still missing, and Japan on the verge of a nuclear disaster. I want to cry and scream out, “Why?” and pound the floor and swear at God and get really angry and get really scared.
Instead, I think of Toshiko and her girlish giggle. I feel her – though she is a world away, I feel her presence, her goodness, her unshakeable strenth. I dig deep, deep, to the very bottom of my well, where my own unshakeable strength lives, and I combine it with hers and, together, we ignite a thread of bright, white light. I feel this thread as surely as I feel the beating of my own heart.
There is hope here, admist the rubble. There are threads of light igniting in households all over the world, sparking compassion and charity and kindness. There is a breaking down of “us” versus “them” as we feel empathy for the plight of our brothers and sisters. There is love here, among the tears, and there will be healing. I am not sure if it is our humanity, our divinity, or the perfect combination of both, that keeps us going when catastrophe strikes, but we do keep going. We strive for home. We strive for life. The sakura blooms again.