Some transitions take years to occur: a child becoming an adult, love blurring into apathy, a stranger becoming a cherished friend. Other transitions take weeks: sickness into health, strange into familiar, curiosity into desire.
Other changes only take a couple of hours, but you're left sitting alone in a room reciting holy shit to yourself.
Waking up in Tokyo
Three days after arriving in sweaty Narita, the new JETs find themselves breaking into their prefectural groupings, heading towards their new homes, and--for those in rural placements--strongly suspecting that their bubble of safety and familiarity is about to be savagely ruptured.
As it happens, one of those new JETs waking up at 5:30 AM to pack bags and feel harried by fate, was named Will Larson (the others probably had names too). The Gifu prefecture group wasn't going to coalesce into a unit until 8:30, but he had plans to meet someone for breakfast.
He might have, perhaps, thought to himself that the orientation in Tokyo was like an extravagant firework display: thousands of shortlived sparks and intense flashes that--barring deliberate and intentional action to prevent it--fade quickly into darkness. Hundreds of strangers collide, and are then interconnected by the glue of shared fears and enthusiasm... but these bonds are tempered by the quiet realization that they may never hear of each other again.
He almost certainly didn't think these things to himself though, he was probably just looking forward to breakfast.
At breakfast he ate with those firework-friends, with people who might have become friends in different circumstances, and with people where the spark of friendship was harder to notice. Soon enough the breakfast plans were honored, and the final breakfast continued onward, eventually arriving at its conclusion.
Eventually the grains of time collected and it was time to leave. Some goodbyes were easier than others. Several, perhaps only one, included the desire to abruptly reach out and hug someone. Hesitation thwarts many things in life.
The Trip to Gifu Prefecture in Two Conversations
GW : other new ALT in Hidashi. Initials do not stand for George Walker. WL: these are my initials. They expand into names that are entirely unpronouncable by Japanese speakers. Fuck.
Standing in Keio Plaza Hotel
GW: Hey man, how are you? Looking forward to Hidashi? WL: Yeah, its like its starting to finally get real. GW: I know, right? We're going to be in Hida tonight man. WL: Yeah. I really don't know anything about Hidashi. GW: Oh, you didn't read the website? WL: Um. I thought it was only in Japanese? GW: Yeah, it is, but I went through and translated parts of it. WL: Wow. No, I didn't read any of it. I read the Wikipedia entry, it said it was a legal entity composed of four villages, it wasn't exactly helpful. GW: The Japanese one had information about busses and the government. They even had government minutes. Apparently they have an active communist party, they voiced some complaints at the last meeting. WL: Seriously? In Japan? They have communists? Hida sounds weird. GW: Yeah... I can't wait to meet our supervisor. WL: I know, he's going to be our lifeline for the next year, and we know nothing about him. GW: Yeah, he's going to be awesome. He's going to be like one of the boys. WL: Umm. I hope so. GW: Seriously, I have this like vision of how he's going to be. It doesn't make any sense, but I have it. WL: Yeah... he'll be like that, or really disgruntled and unhappy with working with us. Either way it'll be entertaining. GW: ...yeah. WL: Oh, looks like we have to line up.
On the train from Tokyo to Gifu
WL: Man, its starting to feel so real. We're going to be there in a couple of hours. In our towns. GW: Yeah. Its going to be awesome. I'm looking forward to using Japanese again. WL: Yeah, I haven't gotten to really use it at all in Tokyo. I said a few words to the baggage people. Did you study in college? GW: Yeah, I was an eastern asian studies major. What about you? WL: Ehh. Well I was a computer science major, but I had about three years. Sort of. GW: Me too. ... GW: I know I've said this before, but man, our supervisor is going to be the man. I'm so excited about meeting him. WL: Yeah, I'm really excited too. ... WL: Woah, thats Mt. Fuji. ... WL: Well, I guess we're here. We're finally going to meet 'The Man'. GW: I'm telling you man, he's going to be great.
We do indeed meet our supervisor. It probably isn't overstating things to say that he is indeed the man.
Into the mountains
After meeting our supervisor, we went and had a fantastic sushi lunch at a restaurant with the rotating conveyor belts that carry sushi. Being an island nation has some serious perks, like fresh fish, and consequently really good sushi. After eating, the drive to Hidashi, and eventually Kamioka, began. It is a long drive: about three hours. You might wonder why we drove instead of taking a train... the sad answer is that the train takes just as long.
The drive is irrefutably gorgeous. The trees cover the mountains far more thickly than I have seen in the over-harvested Appalachian hills. The mountains rise abruptly from the plains. They too are a marked contrast with the casual slopes and gradual mountains of Appalachia. However, Appalachia's beauty has long faded into the mist of familiarity, a fate that the beauty of the Japanese Alps has not yet shared.
It must be said, that the rural beauty of northern Gifu was causing a subtle dread to build in my stomach: I kept wondering where the hell I was going. Each passed mountain and each crossed river added to the distance between the world I understood, and the one that I was going to be spending the next year living in. When we finally turned off the highway for the final forty minute drive, it became even more rural, with most signs of civilization dropping away. This wasn't quite what I expected.
We stopped at the Hidashi City Hall to apply for our Foreign Registration cards, and then I was shuffled into another car with a Japanese woman who would drive me to my new home in the northeast of Hidashi. (Despite being in the same city, my section of the town is about thirty-five minutes away from the central district. This is because the Hidashi is a conglomerate of four small towns that merged together to receive a tax break.) The drive contains a lot of broken English and equally much broken Japanese.
Eventually we arrive in Kamioka. It isn't as small as I had feareed, but I was still gripped in panic and was not quite prepared to acknowledge that it could even potentially be adequate. We pick up my bags from the Kamioka Board of Education, and drop them off at my apartment. Then, somewhat to my surprise, I am told to pick one bag to take with me because I will be staying at a ryokan (a Japanese style inn). I am standing in the entrance to my apartment, wanting very much to go inside and regain my composure, but instead have to choose one bag, and quickly.
Needless to say, I choose my one bag poorly. After only planning for the Tokyo orientation, there is no single bag with toiletries and clean clothes. So I compromise and choose a bag that has neither toiletries nor clean clothing... yeah. It wasn't really an active decision, mostly a reflexive one, but I could have used someone standing there to ask me "What the hell are you doing?".
A quick drive across town and we arrive at the ryokan. I am told to take a shower, and that dinner will be ready for me afterwards. So, I take a shower in the public bathing area, dry off, go up to my room, and put together a set of more-clean-than-dirty clothes to wear. When I am finishing putting my clothing on, the room phone rings and I am told to come down and have dinner. So I do.
Dinner is a bit odd. I am guided to a table that faces a wall, and am sat down to enjoy my dinner with the unadorned wall as my only companion. It is a lot of food, all of it delicious, and eating the whole of it takes about an hour. The wall and I have many conversations, but one line comes into my head and I desperately want to find someone to say it to: "I woke up this morning surrounded by a thousand Americans, and now I will go to sleep alone." But there wasn't anyone I could talk to. So I stared at the wall, ate my dinner, and eventually went to bed.