In Japanese, the term kaeru means "to return", but not just to anywhere — one would kaeru to a place they visit often or has significance, such as school and, especially, one's home. When a person returns to their house, it is typical for them to call "tadaima", and the people in the house to call back "okaeri" or "okaerinasai". Although this would literally mean something along the lines of "Your return", it is most commonly translated as "Welcome home". Above the arrival gates in Narita Aiport, in Tokyo, as you walk from the airplane gates to the immigration counters, is a large sign that reads, Okaerinasai.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘returning’ to a place. Or rather, ‘going back’.
Because this Spring Break I had the opportunity to do something rather amazing and special on a trip as whirlwind and varied as PacRim.
I was able to go back somewhere.
Not just Japan—I could already see Japan differently than I had before, it was already new again even while it was familiar—because I had always expected to return.
But I had reconciled myself, on October 24th, 2014, that I would never see the inside of my host mother’s house again. This did not make me terribly sad. My host mother was a very nice woman—I liked her immensely, and I was pretty sure she liked me, too. I certainly hoped that I would be able to see her again, that if I returned to Kyoto we could get lunch, that we’d continue to be Facebook friends. But I’m very bad at maintaining contacts, and of course, her home is her home, and even if I might be invited there again one day, it might only be for a meal, or to say hello.
This was one of those rare and amazing moments on PacRim that make its tagline of, “A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity!” true. When am I ever going to be able to visit the Tibetan monastery in India again? When am I ever going to be able to go through caves in Ha Long Bay and have Lisa ask me where I’d situate the master bedroom? When am I ever going to be able to stay at the same houses I did on this trip, with the handful of hosts I’ve stayed with during PacRim’s nine months?
But for the five days that I was in Kyoto, my host mother asked me to stay with her at her house. And so, a little shocked and overwhelmingly grateful, I did.
It was exactly as I’d remembered it being. It was nostalgic getting off at my usual bus stop and walking down the familiar street. I recognized the two turns without any trouble or hesitations, even though one is marked only by buildings, and the other is a narrow alley. I crossed the apartment buildings until I saw the one I was looking for, big and wide and beige-ish with a design set in the side that I’ve never completely understood, but at least makes it easy to identify. The bikes were all lined up along the side as I walked to the back garage (it’s more a bike garage or a mud room than a “garage”) door, which was of course exactly as I remembered it. She’d told me it would be unlocked and waiting, so I opened the backdoor and walked into the narrow garage area, calling ‘Tadaima’ to let her know I was there.
It was wonderful just to see her again; it had only been five months or so, but it felt like years.
I had my same room again. The bed pressed to the left with a desk in front of it, the closet in the corner to the right, along the right wall a small bookshelf where I’d kept the things (mostly books) I had bought and wanted to send home before and would do again this time. The only difference was that instead of a fan in the middle of the floor, Sachiko-san taught me how to turn on the heater on the AC. (I had no idea that room had an AC.)
In the morning, though I’d tried to tell her that as a guest (and not a student she was being paid to host) that she didn’t have to feed me or go out of her way for me in any way, there was a covered plate of food on the counter, waiting for me, just like there had been every morning when I had been there before.
I had come back. And it was surreal.
Walking through the hall I hadn’t expected to walk through again, my room mine again, remembering perfectly my order of closing the doors and turning on the lights in the area where I brushed my teeth so that I didn’t flood anyone on either side of the house with light if I was brushing my teeth late.
With the end of the trip (and the subsequent beginning of ‘real life’) so imminent, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’ll be like to live in one place. To have all of your stuff in one area, spread out, to be able to buy fragile or heavy things and not have to worry about how much it’ll cost to ship them (usually more than it cost to purchase them). To have it be your place, for a foreseeable future. To have it be home. A place you can always return to.
A place where you go back.
On a train from Tokyo to Tokushima, I watched the houses pass by in little towns and wondered why someone would live there. What it would mean to live there. Going in and out of your house everyday, going out to work or interact with the world and then coming back. I’ve been wondering for a while what it really means to live anywhere.
It’s hard to express in words, even for someone who fancies herself a writer, what it meant to be able to go back to a place like my host mother’s house, somewhere that was important but, I had thought, for my experience, fleeting. How the city seemed to revolve around my bus stop, how all roads led back to my closest connection with public transportation. I realized, while riding a bike she’d lent me, speeding down Gojo towards a used bookstore I’d come to know very well, that Japan smelled, to me, like my host mother’s laundry detergent. Needing to be back by seven o’clock because that’s when dinner was, and sometimes talking to Sachiko-san in the unique mixture of Japanese and English that comes when one side’s only just learning Japanese and the other’s picked up a handful of English from speakers, and sometimes watching the news on TV and trying desperately to understand the kanji scrolling past. When the water pitcher (with its bizarre little sproingy blue cover with the white rubber person-figure on top) runs out, go right to the second fridge in the garage, grab the jug, come back, fill it.
The little nuances of settled, familiar life.
I graduate ten days after I return to America. I’m terrified. I’ll have just enough time to say hello to my family, have a couple nights with my friends filled with video games and shrieking and laughing and at least one inevitable chorus of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and then I’m going to be punted into the real world and adult life. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that adult life. I don’t know what kind of job I’m going to even start looking for, where I’m going to live, even which country that’ll be in.
If this sounds confused or rambling, I apologize, but maybe it’s more accurate that way. To reflect the state of my own head. I’m sure I had a point going into it, but I probably lost it along the way.
But it’s interesting, the things you come to appreciate, to think about, to appreciate on a trip like this. The idea of ‘home’. The idea of ‘settling’. The idea of just ‘going back’, and having a place to ‘go back’ to.