After I graduated from college, I spent a year in Japan teaching English. My home was in a small city in a rural area on the western tip of the main island. My year there was filled with a blur of students shouting exuberant greetings in English. I spent hours gliding through the countryside on my bicycle in all sorts of weather. I went on frequent karaoke outings, countless train rides, and visits to tiny shrines in the middle of nowhere. I relished the crisp air and the smell of burning crops in autumn, and the rhythmic drone of cicadas in the summer. I marveled at the infinite varieties of canned beverages in ever-present vending machines, sank into the comforting waters of hot springs, and happily ate unknown foods simply because they were offered to me. And I met people with such kind hearts, eager to help me feel at home in their country.
These memories stay with me over a decade later. I recall an elementary school student taking ahold of my hand and telling me, "Wasurenaide." Don't forget. Of course she's probably forgotten me by now, but I can't forget.
If you want to know the beauty of rural Japan, understand what life is like in all those small villages that have now been swept away by tsunami waves, read Holly Thompson's stunning novel in verse, Orchards.
Thompson, Holly. Orchards. 336 p. Delacorte Books for Young Readers. 2011. Hardcover $17.99. ISBN 9780385739771.
Most people think of Tokyo when they think of Japan: a bustling city, crowded with people and tall buildings, flashing lights everywhere, and a maze-like metro system. But there's another side to Japan that most Westerners don't know: the rural villages where the way of life hasn't changed so much over the years. There are no crowds, and the pace of life is a little slower. Family businesses are passed from parent to child. Local artisans use the same techniques originated by their ancestors hundreds of years before. Wooden houses with tiled roofs are nestled into hillsides, and the landscape is rich with rice fields, mountains, and the sea. Shrines and temples are tucked in between houses and stores, and local festivals mark the seasons. Thompson captures this setting so vividly, I was completely transported.
When I first read Orchards, it struck me as remarkably relevant because of the sensitive way it addresses the topic of bullying. And now the book is relevant for another reason, too: all those little villages in Japan.
If you would like to donate to relief efforts in Japan, text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 today.