This was my last day here. I slept well, but woke up about an hour before my 8:45 alarm. My throat was feeling a little better. On the day I arrived, Mrs. Bindewald showed me the bathtub where bluish water was kept heated. From what I read before coming, the Japanese custom was to shower and clean oneself before soaking in the bathtub. I had been meaning to try it when I got the chance, but this morning the tub was drained. Even with the extra time, I didn’t have the patience (or bravery) to figure out how to fill it up, so I took a normal shower. Plus, I had something else in mind.
When I got out, Mrs. Bindewald in her magnanimity offered to make breakfast, which I gratefully received. I feasted on cereal, eggs, bacon, and buttered English muffin as I read the newspaper on the table, mostly to see the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
I had extra time after breakfast so I washed the dishes. Then I packed my things. I had made plans to meet Kaori at Aeon at 10:30 in the morning to go shopping for mochi for my sister and my friend in the States, so I was looking forward to seeing her. But it was only 9:30, and I had been wanting to write a Thank You card to the Bindewalds and buy them a gift. The gift was the easy part, as I could just buy another box of mochi. However, I did not bring any cards. Figuring there was no practical way to get some at this point, even if I went to Aeon early, I decided in the hour I had left to write some quick letters instead. I preferred letters anyway, as I had more space to express myself. One hour, however, was not a lot of time. I interrupted Mrs. Bindewald’s preparation of English lessons to borrow some paper, and got to work.
It turned out I needed the entire hour. I wrote two letters; one to the Bindewalds, and one to the Oguros, who had been kind with helping out with transportation (and of course, I wanted to congratulate them on their daughter’s marriage).
Now having the letters written, I decided I would buy some envelopes as I was shopping for mochi. I asked Mrs. Bindewalds to drive me to Aeon. I thanked her, not knowing what else to say, and then she left.
Kaori had sent me a message that morning to meet in front of McDonald’s. Once I left Mrs. Bindewald’s place, I no longer had any means of communication, so I had to count on our appointment.
I did not see a shadow of her anywhere. The area outside McDonald’s was empty. I walked up and down the wide concrete staircase outside that led up to a terrace, but I still could not find her. I went inside, wondering if I might see her there. Indeed, I found her sitting at a table outside the in-store entrance of McDonald’s. She looked like she had on light makeup and was wearing a magenta and violet plaid shirt, which seemed to match well with her light purple backpack, blue jeans, and shoes that had purple soles. She was carrying a little flowery gift bag in one hand. I wondered if it was a goodbye gift. Turned out it was a party favor from Mark and Megumi’s wedding, boxed in a cute cardstock cake slice.
The first order of business was to get envelopes. Aeon was a large department store. Kaori led me up the escalator, and with superior pathfinding skills, led me to the stationery section. If I had to look for things on my own, which had been my plan just the day before, I would probably have wasted a lot of time. I found some envelopes that were about the right size, and paid for them (there was some strange discount I wasn’t aware of, but I didn’t have much time to figure out its origins).
The mochi, however, wasn’t to be bought here. Our plan hadn’t been firmly set yet, but according to Kaori, it was better to buy mochi in Chiba, or as she kept suggesting, to buy it at the airport. I wasn’t too keen on buying native food at the airport, so I decided to buy it in Chiba.
However, I still needed cash, and of all places, Aeon would be among the most likely to have an ATM. I had about ¥7000 left from Michelle’s Exchange, and had been wanting to find an ATM or a post office the whole trip, but never got the chance to, so seeing the bank of ATMs was like discovering an oasis in a desert. Kaori called her mom to help me find the appropriate ATM (there were several from different banks). Her mom told her I should use the one with a green logo—JPBank. She also offered to give us a ride to Chiba so that we wouldn’t have to take the train. The ATM menus were in Japanese, but Kaori helped me withdraw the cash quickly (I didn’t want to feel like I was holding up the line). Estimating I would buy about 4 or 5 boxes, at ¥3000 each, I withdrew a solitary ¥10000 bill.
When we were finished at Aeon, her mom was already in the front. I put the stuff in the car, and then we were on our way.
I left my luggage in the car and headed with Kaori into a department store called Sogo. We went down the escalator to the food court (which seems to be the norm in department stores), where there were lots of different desserts for sale in displays. We went around a few times, looking for mochi. There were all kinds of mochi, but I had no idea what their flavors were. A few years ago, my friend was abroad in Japan for a trip with the Stanford Chamber Chorale, and he brought back some mochi, which I enjoyed immensely. I remembered the box was dark green, with a picture of a half-bitten mochi that was filled with green-tea paste on the front, but I did not see anything similar in the store. Kaori had told me that boxes of mochi cost ¥1000 to ¥2000, but that the more expensive ones were ¥3000 to ¥4000, so I was prepared to shell out some money. But I had no idea what to get, and so we walked around several times. Kaori pointed me to some chocolate and some cookies, but I really wanted mochi. Finally, she showed me this one vendor that was selling these giant peanut-shaped things that were inside these cute peanut-shaped boxes. They were only selling for ¥1050 for a box, and Kaori said they are supposed to be good, so I got two of them, happy that I now had some gifts that weren’t too expensive and that were novel as well. Plus, if Chiba was known for their peanuts, they had to taste good.
We walked around a little more. Kaori kept reminding me that I could buy mochi at the airport, but I wasn’t too keen on the idea (I was under the impression that it would be really expensive, or that the quality would not be that great). So we kept walking. I hoped my indecisiveness was not annoying her. There was a counter in the back that we passed by several times. I finally asked Kaori whether the food displayed was mochi (we passed by a different counter earlier where I saw some giant balls that looked like mochi, but Kaori told me those weren’t mochi, so I was more cautious in my assessment). She said that it was Sakura mochi (cherry-blossom flavored). I asked if it was good. She said it was supposed to be really good, so I asked why we kept walking past it. Kaori said she thought it was too expensive. But I had been prepared to pay for it, and since I only had to buy a few more boxes, it seemed to be well worth it. I ended up buying two boxes.
I had some money left, and I was curious about the peanut-shaped boxes, since they looked quite interesting. Since it wasn’t that expensive, I bought another box, which I planned to eat before I flew out.
We then left the store, and walked toward her parents’ restaurant. She apologized for making me walk so far, but I didn’t mind. I was excited about our lunch together. She told me the shop was called “Koufukuken” (幸福軒). I couldn’t understand, so she explained that “Kou-fuku” means happiness and “ken” means house. I had no idea how to visualize it until a few moments later, I saw a sign on the sidewalk pointing down a small drive with the Kanji. I told her that the last character was actually my name (幸福軒 literally means “blessed house” or “blessed Xuan,” however you wanted to interpret it; I’m more inclined to read it the second way ^_~).
Funny thing happened: right before we saw the sign, Pastor Dan (who presided over and gave the message at Mark and Megumi’s wedding) was just driving from the restaurant. He said something in Japanese to Kaori. I caught something about “おいしい” (delicious) but Kaori later explained that he joked that the ramen was not delicious. Interesting way of joking, I suppose. Or maybe something just got lost in the translation.
We went in. It was a small place, and nearly fully seated. I saw Kaori’s parents behind the L-shaped counter making ramen. Even though I knew they owned the shop, it was still a little surprising to see them in this context, since they were in formal attire just a few days prior. There were two empty seats next to each other at the bar, right in front of her parents. We walked on over. I set down my bags and turned around to hang my jacket. When I turned back around, all my bags were gone! It turned out there was space underneath the counter where people could put their belongings. Neat!
She talked a bit with her parents while I took everything in. The space was pretty narrow; the shop fit about 12-15 people. There was a machine near the entrance where people seemed to get tickets, which they exchanged for ramen. Since I had no idea what they offered, Kaori pretty much ordered for us. I told her I ate everything. She asked if I ate sweet pork. I loved pork. A few moments later, I was given a ramen bowl with two thick pieces of pork, a half-boiled egg, dried seaweed, kelp, and some chives to top it off. Bean sprouts came on the side. To quote a copper comic, you just can’t beat food made with love. I was very thankful for the Oguro’s hospitality.
We chatted little while we were eating. Kaori’s parents asked me a few questions while they worked, but for the most part, they focused on their work. In fact, we seemed to be the only ones talking; most people came in, sat down, got a bowl in exchange for a ticket, and then left, with Mr. Oguro thanking them on their way out. It was very different from the U.S., where silence is an anomaly at almost any eating establishment.
Mr. Oguro asked if I wanted more noodles. At first I refused, since I felt like it would throw off the noodle-to-stuff proportion. But after I finished my bowl, I began wondering whether my refusal was seen as rude. I had soup leftover anyway, so I asked Kaori if I could get more noodles. Mr. Oguro gave me a hefty bowl, which I mixed into my soup. By the time I finished that and the pineapple slices that came after, I was stuffed.
I wanted to pay, but Kaori wouldn’t let me, saying that I was a guest that day. Little did she know (or maybe she already suspected) that I was planning to leave one of the mochi boxes for her family. Payback!
Mrs. Oguro offered to drive me to the train station. I really should have walked, but I suppose I would have missed the next train then. Like always, she was very patient as I took the opportunity to fold and seal the letters. Earlier, I had used my curiosity of the Japanese language to get Kaori to check my spelling of her family name. Now, I pulled out my phone, the backseat blocking the line-of-sight from the rear-view mirror, and labeled the envelopes and slipped them into the gift bags in which I had placed the boxes of mochi. With deftness, I had everything packed in a couple of minutes. Very ninja, if I do say so myself.
I then got into the backseat, and we drove off. Mrs. Oguro pointed to a building, saying that a new Bible teaching center was opening up right there. She also mentioned that a lot of foreign students come to Chiba to learn Japanese, and that these people could speak pretty well within three months, citing a Russian girl and a Chinese boy who came to work at their restaurant on weekends. This gave me hope—perhaps my language ambitions weren’t out of reach after all.
The drive to the station was all too short. Soon, I would be on my own. I was dreading that moment. Kaori went as far as the turnstile with me. I bought my ticket quickly. I wanted to say some last words. As usual, I couldn’t come up with much, so we just hugged and said a simple goodbye. I could have teared up if I wanted to, but for whatever reason, I decided not to, and walked on without looking back.
At the airport, I found the green box of mochi that I was looking for. I took a picture of it and texted it to Kaori. Then I bought it and stuffed it into my already overstuffed luggage. I was beginning to worry about George, but he showed up as we were lined up to board. Unfortunately, the guy I was sitting next to didn’t want to swap, and I liked my legroom, so we sat separately.
Though the trip was less than a week long, I felt like it had changed my outlook quite a bit. Japan had always been a source of tension for other East Asian nations. The historical atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in China and Korea in WWII had bred an ill disposition toward the Japanese. On the individual level, these transgressions can be overlooked, even easily, as the younger generations are so removed from what happened in the past. But on the national level, the tension was always there in the back of my mind, despite my affinity for Japanese RPGs, game companies, artwork, food, and a number of other cultural aspects. This trip finally allowed me to assign real faces to the word “Japanese,” to see the nation more than a government or an army, but also as a collection of individuals who wish to make something great of their lives, or perhaps are seeking or waiting for a greater vision than what they have now.
I am grateful for the opportunity to see the rich love and diligence of the missionaries who work there. I see their faithfulness as well as their fruitfulness and can’t help but feel optimistic. I am also thankful for the Japanese Christians and for the reminder that God’s family is the same no matter where I am. The faith of these brothers and sisters is vastly encouraging, being tested and found genuine in such a difficult environment (Japan’s Christian population is less than 1%).
On a more individual level, the last time I was abroad was nearly seven years ago. By the time I came back from that trip, I had made two friends whom I had gotten to know quite well. I made two friends this trip as well. Kaori and I continued to iMessage each other after I returned, and I’ve gotten to know her now much more deeply. The exchanges between Michelle and me were more intermittent, but I’ve gotten to know her better as well through exchanging our writings with one another. Both of them were instrumental in my getting these accounts accurately written. I hope one day to see them again.