Photos from my experience as an exchange student in Yaizu, Japan, 1979
¨Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do¨
Taakasan Omiyage (Many Gifts)
Like most men, I (Paul Heller, Founder of Fifty-Plus Nomad) seldom cry. I cry at soppy movies or following the death of a relative or a friend. Only once have I cried at something different than a film or death. It was a warm summer day when I was fourteen years old, on a plane bound for my home in August 1979. I sobbed uncontrollably for almost two hours because I didn’t want to go home.
I wanted to stay in Yaizu, Japan, a small town halfway between Tokyo and Nagoya, where I’d spent the previous two months as an exchange student.
This was the first time I’d ever left the country for a long and life-changing experience. In Yaizu, I always met new friends, learned about a different way of life, and received generous gifts and attention. I didn’t feel fat, clumsy, stupid, or bored. Instead, I felt alive and treasured.
I did not want to go home and:
- Be picked on by mean spirited students who reveled in making me feel stupid, ungainly, and fat.
- Struggle to understand algebra and chemistry.
- Return to the routine of my home life.
I was the first American most of the Japanese in Yaizu had ever met. When I walked down the street, little kids stopped to feel my skin and my hair. On the third day there, I accompanied my host brother, Hideshi, to his high school. As I walked down the hallway, the students gawked at me. Every day for the next three weeks, the students would bring me little gifts like antique silver coins.
Even though I was younger than most of the students, I led them in English conversation classes. I loved telling the students about the USA and learning about their families and lives even though they were painfully shy. The English teachers sought my advice on grammar and conversation questions.
At the end of my stay, the teachers;
- Gave me a yukata (a male kimono) and a gold embossed certificate of appreciation.
- Feted me with copious amounts of sake and platters filled with artfully arranged sashimi and teriyaki at a four-hour luncheon held in a large, tatami (a woven grass floor covering) clad private room perched above Yaizu’s busy fishing harbor.
After the school session finished, I followed my host mother, Yukiko, on her daily chores for the rest of my stay. Yukiko taught piano to students of all ages. Her students and friends took me on tours of the city, invited me to visit their clubs, and even entertained me with elaborate, sake-drenched dinners. When I arrived at her students’ or colleagues’ homes, they would set out intricately arranged plates of sumiko, a square-shaped watermelon that cost about $25 a pound.
One day, I looked around Satchiko’s, one of my host mother’s friends, home. I innocently remarked that I liked a handmade doll with a small, reversible face draped in an intricate paper kimono. She gave me the doll. After refusing, I accepted the gift and casually noted that the doll’s face was blank. Sachiko then painstakingly attempted to draw a face on the doll and smeared ink all over the face in the process. My host mother took the doll from her hands and turned the face around to be blank. I left with the gift, embarrassed yet touched by Satchiko’s kindness.
After about two weeks, Yukiko came to me and said that Sachiko had dropped off another gift for me–a beautiful pair of kimono-clad samurai dolls.
When I left Japan, I grappled with two luggage carts overloaded by three heavy boxes and two bulging suitcases. The Japanese host families gathered in the gallery above the departure area pointed at me and muttered taakasan omiyage (many gifts). My excessive baggage was a point of pride for these families – a subtle indication of their fellow citizens’ hospitality.
Never in my life have I felt so special as my stay in Yaizu. It is no wonder that I cried. Every time I think about my time in Japan, I see living symbols of humanity’s innate goodness. I feel so blessed that I could feel the loving embrace of the people of Yaizu when I needed it most.
My Journey Into Czarist Russia
While studying Russian in Saint Petersburg in 1994, Rachel, a fellow student, invited me to visit a friend in Gatchina. Gatchina, a small suburb about 30 minutes outside the city, is known for its somewhat modest Czarist-era summer palace. Since I did not have anything else to do, I decided to accompany Rachel. (Note: Rachel was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. She was a trained nurse from Australia who worked with the Aborigines. She could speak all six major Aboriginal dialects fluently. Her ability to learn Russian fast was awesome).
When we arrived in Gatchina, we rushed into a room in the palace’s basement covered with copious Russian hors d’oeuvres and vodka.
After we enjoyed lunch, a palace tour guide showed us the museum and castle. About an hour into the tour, the palace closed, but we stayed and spent several hours in the palace alone.
We danced in an elegant Czarist ballroom to waltz music played on an old cassette player. Then we visited hidden nooks in the basement filled with small gold artifacts from the palace hidden from public viewing. As we began to leave, the couple invited us back to their home to enjoy even more food and vodka. Then, we caught the late train back to Saint Petersburg.
I realize that many tourists would have spent hundreds of dollars for the chance to see a palace after hours. It only cost me fifty cents for the train tickets and a couple of dollars for wine. Yet, the experience was priceless. What started as a simple visit to a new friend ended up being one of the most magical days of my life.