Waking up and peering out the window from the top of a dingy bunk bed in a hostel located in downtown Toronto. A cashmere pink sky is pulling the sun out from the ground. 8am and Toronto is looking as bashful as ever. I have felt like a tourist in my own city this weekend. Showing the Vancouver peeps around made it so. It’s actually not too shabby, this city that I thought was oh so corporate and cold. Having community chisels away at isolation. Even if we are only just a bunch of kids lumped together, handed off to the Japanese cabinet with one mission in mind: to represent Canada to the best of our ability.
Driving to the airport in a greyhound bus, I stare out the window at the Toronto skyline. I am on the brink of something big. Wondering when I drive on this highway again, will I be changed at all? One of the alumni’s, Sergio, told me to have no expectations. That was a relief. All the others keep reassuring us that it will be the experience of a lifetime. Not that I have any doubt but expectations can kill. Sergio reminded us that it’s your boat, your journey, your adventure and each one is different. And so I will remind myself to be patient, to live in the moments that are to come and not in their potential.
I open the sliding door and enter the room. Spirited Away is playing on the TV in Japanese. There are 3 choices of beverage to drink, 3 choices of blankets, 3 different pillows and the cutest welcome sign on the door. Beside the mattress on the tatami lies pink cherry blossom pajamas- the one article of clothing I forgot to pack. Universe, how did you know?! This is too much of a coincidence for me to believe there is no higher work at play here.
Fukui is the happiest prefecture in Japan. Yuri lived in the rural area, near the mountains. We began the day with buttered mushrooms and a miso soup breakfast with chewy rice cakes inside. Immediately afterwards, we went to go make soba. Lots of punching and kneading the dough. I told Yuri I liked sweet potatoes during the car ride to her house and she miraculously had a newly bought one at her house upon arrival. I ended up consuming them for every meal afterwards. Later on the train ride back to Tokyo, I joked with Kevin and Jen about the overwhelming hospitality. You don’t tell the Japanese that you like something because then they won’t stop offering it to you every chance they get. Kevin had the same problem I had but with beer (haha). I wonder what condition I would have been in if I had said chocolate.
We enter the Eihei-ji temple and I can feel the energy shift. It is timbered and rustic, providing a homely feel. My slippers keep sliding off and the biting cold stings my feet. Still, I feel a sense of peace here. Later, we go to make Echizen paper. I go wild, loading up my canvas with as many flowers and cut outs that can fit. I glance over at Yuri’s paper and realize that simplicity is the way to go.Her’s looks much more elegant and tasteful.
That night, I sit under a kotatsu and show Yuri my house on Google earth. She teaches me how to make origami and I observe her silently as she does shodo (Japanese calligraphy). It’s soothing to watch the ink flow from the pen. Afterwards, she gives me a calligraphy pen of my own. To end the night, I attempt to dip into a 43 ℃ bath. I love being enveloped by heat but damn, does it hurt. I don’t last over 5 minutes until I start worrying that my skin will peel off like a boiled potato. Yuri and her family don’t speak much English and at times, the language barrier is frustrating. But their smiles convey all the warmth of an inviting, happy family. That night, I snuggled cozily into the blankets and had the most satisfying sleep I’d have throughout the entire trip.
Yuri’s dad drives me back the train station. The song from Kima no No Wa is playing as we pass through the mountain sides. I don’t want to leave yet I know that there isn’t much here. The shops are cute, the food is cute, heck even the cars are cute. But there is no intensity. The hastiness doesn’t reach its tendrils outside of Tokyo. But the less stimulants you have in your environment, the crazier you can get on the inside. The imagination will jolt into awakening and close the gap. Maybe if I lived up in the mountains, I’d write something heavy. In Toronto, the theme of my writing tends to fall under the “slice of life” genre over and over again. There is too much going on, too much that needs to be done in order to measure up and feel worthy. When writing is an escape, contrast happens.
The Canadians go to Fukui with the Egyptian delegation. At the reception and bus ride back to Tokyo, I sit beside Asaad. When he was 16, he participated in the Arab Springs and was inspired to create his own NGO. We talk about how startup culture varies between our two countries, and about travel and meditation. In the dinosaur museum a little twerp comes up to me and tells me how nanotechnology makes the dinosaurs move. I am taken aback by his intellect. In Egypt, over 3000 people applied to SWY and the resulting delegation are more than qualified. The little twerps name is Hossam and he is the same age as me. It’s his first time travelling and for the rest of the trip, we become as close as siblings (we also fought like siblings). He tells me his ideas for inventions, such as magnetic hovercraft skate parks and a new approach to education abroad. It’s delightful to watch him grow. And I won’t ever forget the look on his and the rest of the Egyptians faces when they saw snow for the first time. They were so excited to sled down a 20metre hill and I was elated just watching them.
The trees shimmer as the wind passes through their limbs. I am wearing my black funeral hat, the one I feel oh so mysterious in. Can you feel the earth inside of you, I ask myself. I lie there, on the leafy floor of Ueno park, thinking. Of Tokyo. Of all that’s happened. How I was in Harajuku earlier this morning, everything screaming at me. The glamorous lights, the bold fashion, the tangible conglomeration of identity. How I wanted it all, to tirelessly explore the depths of the shops for treasures, making sure I didn’t miss anything. What a shame it would be to miss something. I was disappointed that I had run out of money and couldn’t soul search in the clothing racks to my heart’s desire. But deep down, I knew what I was doing. It dishonors a love for style when you use it to fill a void. The minute I felt that I “needed” something is when my self-awareness kicked in. At least that’s progress.
And so I lie there, trickling my hands through dead leaves, letting myself mold into the nature. When I get back up, I can feel the earth shooting up my spine, holding me up straighter. I take my sweet time on a half hour walk and make it linger. Incessant barks get my attention and I enter the dog park to my left. A wiener dog wearing a teal sweater sits quietly on my lap for almost an hour as I try to make conversation with his owner, Satosh. He named his dog after a wine haha. I receive an email from Satosh later that week and it absolutely makes my day. It reminds me that I shouldn’t be hesitant to wander off alone.
I listen to the orchestra version of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack as I walk around Yokahoma harbor. I come across an old man sketching the Nippon Maru, the boat I am soon about to board. I think about asking to buy it, but then realize what a painfully cliché tourist move that is. Besides, it looks like he hasn’t finished yet. One hour later, I enter the boat running. Everything is glistening-the railings, the chandeliers, the elevator doors. It’s not quite like the Titanic but I feel tingles of grandeur. Onwards I go.