Friday, November 06, 2009

connecting the dots

gaah; it's already been a month! it's hard to remember to update since i'm no longer sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours every day. i have some pumpkin muffins in the oven, so instead of washing the dishes, i'll write.
it's been over three months since i left my old life in kumano for my new life here, a fourth of the year gone in a flash. in that time i've been settling in but also feeling a bit untethered. new city, new home, new job, new friends (since, for the time being, i've been too poor to see my old friends). most days it doesn't really bother me...i like exploring japan and this IS what i wanted for so long--to really experience city life.
however, i'm also a familiarity junkie. i like to know my environment: where to find every little thing, how to get everywhere, where to eat; i like to have a history with the places i inhabit. it's in my pack rat personality to also file away information, and i spent three years in kumano memorizing the places i could buy american sweet potatoes (only in november), tortillas (random liquor store), a light-bulb socket that plugs into an outlet (yes, i've needed several), watch batteries... now i have to start over from the beginning.
with nothing familiar, i have felt completely cut off from the last three years of my life, though i am a negligible distance from where they took place. my heart has been aching a bit, mourning the sudden separation from hundreds of important, life-changing, sometimes warm, sometimes frustrating memories and the people i shared them with. there hasn't been much i could do about it until last weekend, when i finally had free time and enough money to get me back to kumano.

[Long Aside: the main reason i've been so poor, aside from the thousands of dollars it cost to move and get my apartment secured, is because i transitioned to paying my own health insurance premiums. you're required to enroll if you live in japan. if you weren't enrolled and then decide to, you have to pay for all the payments you "missed," even though you weren't covered. kinda bonkers. i knew i was covered before and would have to begin paying, but i didn't know how much, and i also had ZERO extra money. i have only recently gotten some of my clothes out of the boxes i've been using as drawers. so i didn't pay. then they found me...and sent me a payment plan of $350 per month for the next four months! gulp. i felt completely deflated. not only do i simply not have that much money, but it looked as though my regular monthly payment would be $270 (it's based on your previous year's salary...i was making more then). maybe i couldn't make things work here after all! after all i've invested to stay. it doesn't help that i can't read anything but the amount. i knew right away i'd probably have to borrow money to cover the health insurance payments, but would i ever really catch up!? the good news is that (thanks to the school secretary asking for me), my monthly payments are actually $180 per month, and they'll go down a bit in april. so, though i thought i was almost caught up financially, it looks like it might take a while. the good news is i'm healthy and my car and computer are working; those things make me really grateful!]

in spite of all this (or because of it), i felt i had to visit kumano while i had the chance. not only would it be a beautiful time (and my only long weekend for months), i've felt stranded here because i didn't know how to get anywhere by car. if i finally drove down to mie, i wouldn't feel so trapped.
sunday i packed up my car, and feeling jittery about finding the way alone, i set off. i was tempted to tell the toll booth operator it was my first time on that road just for an encouraging smile, but i didn't. :) the road was clear, and soon i relaxed as i found each junction easy enough to understand. i crossed a wide, green bridge and was back in mie without fanfare. the clean, new cars of aichi were replaced with cars like mine: old, tiny, dusty. the landscape opened up and the late morning light lit up fields and trees. i took a deep, happy breath. finally i began to connect my old life with my new one.
in just over an hour, i passed the landmark i had been holding my breath for: tsu city. everything after tsu i've driven many times, and it all feels like the home stretch. when the expressway ended, i pulled off at a familiar convenience store to stretch my legs. what can i say? still an hour from kumano, i already felt home. a grin took over my face. i smelled the fresh air scented with leaf smoke and damp.
i got back in the car and the rest of the journey sped by in a blur of sunlight and green mountains. a trip i had expected to feel like a long, exhausting journey didn't seem to take any time at all. i pulled into town with my heart beating loudly and my hands shaking. i didn't really want to see any students i knew yet; i wasn't quite ready for reunions with people, i just wanted to see the town i belonged to and enjoy it. i was staying with katie, but she was busy in another town until that night, so i let myself into her apartment and unpacked while i got my bearings. then i headed off to my friend etsuko's house for a visit.
everything made me happy: fields of dripping satsuma oranges, the spiders stretched across eaves (maybe the first time spiders have ever made me smile), the wet pavement. etsuko's house was warm and she had scones baking, so we settled down over coffee and caught up comfortably.

i hobbled out two hours later, almost sick on sweets but happy all the same. i drove to the gym where i finally learned how to love running and just sat in the car while the rain dripped down the windshield. i would have liked to go inside, but i didn't bring my gear (next time). it was getting dark, so i moved on to the grocery store to see if they had those elusive american sweet potatoes in stock yet, and you know what? they did! i glowed with success. the only thing in my basket was $18 worth of sweet potatoes, so the old lady behind me in line asked if they were any good (they're pretty different from the japanese kind). she was nice, so i told her about them and then drove to the cheap sushi restaurant for dinner. it was perfect.
the next day was a work day for katie, so i was left to my own devices. some things never change, eh? the day was gorgeous and sunny, so i went back to the gym to hang out in the park where i used to read and write letters. i think that is what i've been needing more than anything: sun, the smell of the ground, empty hours. i watched the clouds dissolving and reforming across the sky and got some vitamin D. just before heading off to visit my old school, i tried some exuberant photos.

i tried not to get my hopes up about going back to school. i knew no one was waiting expectantly for me to visit, but i did end up having some good talks with teachers, and though the students seemed happy to see me, they were in the thick of preparing for entrance exams. i did find out there is a baby sugar due in february, so all my best to mr. sugar and his sweet.
i popped up to see my 80-something-year-old neighbor, and she, more than anyone, looked happy to see me. she just stood in her doorway looking up at me, grinning, her gold tooth gleaming in the afternoon light. she sent me off with a bag of potatoes and onions from her garden and told me to come back at christmas for some fresh daikon.

the next morning i bought a bag of satsumas from the neighborhood honor box for a dollar.

i hadn't had a chance to visit my favorite onsen, so katie and i went the next day, though i was running out of time and still had to drive back. the drive back is a little more complicated as there is a perpetual traffic jam heading north, but i put it out of my mind and enjoyed the brilliant weather and the view in the daytime.

relaxed and energized, i left my kumano as night fell and ate satsumas in the dark car all the way home.


  1. so lovely - a little sad and a lot of beautiful. and so good for those who are themselves in the midst of transition to hear. i feel as though reading your blog posts often is for me what visiting those familiar spots in kumano are for you.

    there are no satsuma in the midwest, but, rest assured, i will enjoy some citrus of rememberance on the way home from the store tonight.

  2. this is really sweet. it reminds me for some reason of tacoma. i guess because it's a familiar place i miss and i have a stock boiling away in the background and kept thinking it was drippy rain of the northwest i was hearing. but no, just a late, dry soutwest winter crawling in.

  3. thank you for such lovely comments!
    and r...kumano often reminded me of tacoma too.