Summer in Japan: hot, humid days that turn the act of sandwich building into an Olympic event; cold noodles with equally chilled dipping sauces; and festivals offering grilled food, live music, and a chance to embarrass yourself on a public karaoke stage.
I have no trouble taking part in the latter two summer experiences alone. Heading to my local festival — or matsuri (お祭り) — alone, however, seemed more daunting. There is a sizable population of foreigners in this part of Fukui prefecture, but most tend to come from socially oppressed parts of Southeast or Central Asia. White faces tend to stick out like the proverbially painful non-finger appendage. Woe is the fate of the white man.
Despite my reservations, I went to the festival armed with a budget of 1200 yen (~10 USD) and the certainty that, at best, I’d be stared at uncertainly as I munched my way around the festival. My meager budget proved more than enough for a wonderful experience, and my assumption about my reception, well, that was more than just a little cynical.
Arriving fashionably late an hour after the festival started, I ordered myself a beer from an older gentlemen who would become one of my partners in the evening’s debauchery. Confused at first that I could mutter but a syllable of Japanese, he quickly warmed to me, offering more than one free beer as the night continued. An old man nearby, his clothing and spine bent at a near 90-degree angle from decades in the rice fields, looked at me suspiciously, clearly unsure of my intentions.
The cold mug met my hand as the thump of stick on drum skin reverberated through the air. For 10 minutes I stood just outside of the crowd that had formed itself into the circle around the taiko — a traditional Japanese war drum — performers. An invisible barrier around me seemed to keep anyone from coming within a two-foot radius. The foam in my glass ran ever closer to the bottom, an alcoholic hourglass pushing me toward my exit.
To say I was surprised when a stranger dressed in the tan and green jumpsuit of a construction worker led me to a chair to introduce me to his wife as the same man who’d sold me my beer earlier arrived with a fresh pint — free of charge, he promised — would be an incredible understatement. I’d gone from leper to person of interest.
It wasn’t the first time Japanese hospitality wrapped me in its beer-laden grasp. Typically, though, it goes something like this: a beer is offered, stock questions — where are you from, where are you here — posed, and I’m abandoned with a polite farewell. My novelty quickly loses its shine, usually a result of my failing to give my Japanese study any real effort. Things quickly went differently.
I sipped from the head of the comped beer, and the questions started. Only — and this surprised me as much as anybody else — when I went to respond, I offered more than textbook answers in Japanese. I was suddenly using vibrant, natural language. Met by more than a foreigner who clearly couldn’t be bothered to learn their language, we passed the standard curiosity phase, diving into something that felt more like a road to meaningful friendship.
Strangers introduced me to their children, spouses, and friends. I was met with excitement when locals found out I lived only a block from them. For the first time since I’ve been here, I felt like more than a token. The contacts list in my phone doubled in a night, numbers and LINE ID’s added between kampais and conversations about history and girlfriends and jobs and failures.
Finally, I stumbled down the ruins of a stone footpath, through a small cemetery. What I’d been sure would be only a short stop in my self-imposed solitary confinement became inebriation and plans to go out to dinner with new friends. It became a promise to join a kendo class the following Monday night, and the realization that six-months of bemoaning my loneliness were ultimately avoidable; I simply needed to be an active participant.
I’m glad for the friendships. I’m appreciative for the huge tab of free beer and roasted animal bits and corn given to me as a welcome. I’m not terribly happy about the summer hangover — exacerbated by stifling heat and humidity that put Mordor to shame — but I don’t mind that being the price for finally feeling at home.
Whether you’re in Japan, the States, or anywhere else, what was the moment that made you feel at home in a new country?