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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2010-10-08 Getting to Know You


Trim and stylish in a navy blue dress and heels, the special agent was on the job. Granted, it was her first time alone at this particular grocery store, but she had observed her sempai very carefully on the previous sortie. She could go without the slightest hesitation right to where the instant curry, the miso, and the tofu were stocked, and even coolly pick up a loaf of bread from the bakery section, all without losing track of the “Mission Impossible” theme running through her head. Oh yes, she was in her element! She even knew that at the register one had to pay 10 yen extra for bags. So this time she declined gracefully in flawless Japanese (oh was she an artist!), and took her basket of comestibles to the bagging table, to use the free…oh…the very small, very flimsy bags…!! There is something about scrabbling after newly-purchased apples and tofu rolling all over the grocery store floor that just ruins any top-secret mission. The hapless gaijin sheepishly got back in line with 10 yen for the proper bags.

“I’m Leah, from America.” “Ah, American! I can tell by your face. I am from Japan. Can you tell by my face?”

I took off my shoes to enter the main hall of Kiyomizu-dera. There was something Catholic about it, in the flowers, the candles glowing, the coins endlessly tinkling into offertory boxes, the incense-blackened bodhisattvas holding court around the Goddess of Mercy who looked holy and bored. There was a queue to kneel and pray, and after praying one struck a large urn with a mallet, resulting in a droning boom that echoed regularly through the temple. And I had come there alone, so the afternoon was mine to spend. Delicious.  


The fourth Sunday at the Kyoto Disciple’s Church, the children finally overcame their shyness and wanted to play with me after lunch. At first they would sneak up behind and poke me—with crayons, rulers, uchiwa fans—and then run away screaming. Being hesitantly poked with household objects made me feel a bit like some strange animal, but the poking soon turned into tickling which turned into plopping into my lap and giving hugs. One little girl wanted to know all about my Mama and Papa and their names and ages. “Those names are hard to say. Aren’t your parents Japanese?” “No, they are American, like me.” “Oh!” She had to think about that for a while. It was nice to be so accepted! Even though I talk funny and look nothing like anyone else in the church, the kids seem to assume I am one of them.

At Doshisha I am taking a grand total of 14 courses. Each only meets once a week, but I sometimes misplace homework, or turn in an assignment in the wrong class. Luckily the professors are kind and flexible. One of my favorites is Takemura-sensei. He is not popular because he lectures without smiling or doing anything amusing. He is not young, but on the first day of class he let slip he recently married and has “two babies.” My goal in the class is to be allowed to see photos of them.

I still haven’t gotten used to being stared at. Children fix their eyes on me unashamedly, women give me a once-over with practiced tact and swiftness, men steal glances rather less tactfully. Once at a crosswalk an old man gave me a thorough looking-over with such innocent curiosity I wanted to laugh despite my discomfort! At school it is the same, the brown eyes looking up and finding me and lingering, flicking away again if eye-contact is made. Over and over as I walk to class or anywhere. I want to look calmly back with a glance that says, “Soudesu. Koko ni imasu yo.” “Yes, I am here.” And smile. But usually I just hold my head down.

Oh, the freedom of a late Saturday morning, the sky blue overhead and the empty sidewalk singing away under my bicycle’s wheels! A fragrant coolness wafted from over the walls of the Imperial Palace as I pedaled by. Birds and butterflies fluttered there too in the branches of the trees. I had a destination in mind, but the day was so fine, it wouldn’t matter terribly if I never found it. The trip was a success already. How wonderful it was to be alive, here, in Kyoto, in Japan!

~Leah Sedy

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