In Japan, most of us in the dorm honestly preferred to meet and talk in the communal shower rather than have people over to our rooms because the shower was more spacious and less intimate than our rooms. The dorms were narrow, and they took on the smell of our trash, our dirty laundry, our angst, and most of us were of the opinion that it was best not to bring too many people into that.

I let my neighbor Miyuki into my room one late fall night, though, because I was tired of holding the door open and talking to her in the hallway, which was cold and had florescent light. Miyuki was blinky, scratchy, frizzy-haired, and a little bit darker than most girls. Once she was in my room sitting on my futon —looking wide-eyed… More…

 

 

When I moved back to my parents’ home in Reading, Pennsylvania, I thought it would be a brief stopover. I had recently graduated from college and just returned from a year in Japan; I was hoping to live with my parents while I worked on a book. What started as a three-month visit grew into a 23-month extended stay.

This time at home was not, however, without its memorable moments. Highlights included celebrating my 24th birthday at a Hall & Oates concert with my mother; attending the Mid-Atlantic District Barbershop Chorus Championships in Wildwood, New Jersey, with my father; a variety of squirrel encounters; and wearing a chain mail belt of my own creation to my cousin’s Renaissance-themed wedding.

Daily life was filled with pleasant discoveries (noticing the train sounds from my bedroom for the first time, watching the moon from the roof) but tinged with the… More…

 

At one point on a bus trip in Japan, I heard two foreigners wondering aloud about how best to prepare some Japanese root vegetables they had seen in the supermarket, and it took everything in me not to interject the answer, which I knew. That’s when I realized, to my amazement, that I had somehow become an expert on Japan. I had never met one of those I liked, and had never set out to become one.

I am not sure how it happened. I guess first I learned the language, which I blame on my addiction to the Japanese women’s magazines in the back of my high school classroom. I was a sucker for their elegant craft ideas, crazy fashion photos, and dirty cartoons. But the major appeal of the language was that foreign words written in… More…

 

The first time I traveled around Japan I came across a capsule hotel with a live video feed outside that was broadcasting the guests inside relaxing in towels in a steam room. It seemed like a weird invasion of privacy. In real time I could see the sweat puddling up in the crease between one salary-man’s breasts and gut. Other men were walking around in towels and rubbing their own shoulders seemingly oblivious to the video camera that was broadcasting their image onto the street, yet I imagined it was that very live feed that had enticed them into checking in in the first place. They knew that people outside on the street were watching them relax in the semi-nude, but they seemed too warm and clean to care.

I wanted to check in. This capsule was just… More…

As soon as I walked out of the train station on my first day in Kyoto, I knew that I would love Japan. I passed the ground floor of a department store on my way to the street. To my right, next to purses and scarves, was a wall of color and pattern — windowpane plaid, polka dots, orange and turquoise, red and magenta, lime and navy. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a display of washcloths, the most beautiful washcloths I had ever seen. (Unlike their American counterparts, usually relegated to some fourth-floor linen department and confined to neutral bathroom hues, these squares of terry are not used for washing but are kept in purses for drying one’s hands in public restrooms.)

The washcloths were my first exposure to the attention to detail that characterizes much of Japan — both visually and socially. I soon… More…

When Nana Takahashi arrived as our school’s new manager she had one good thing going for her: Things could not get any worse. An ongoing lack of English students meant we hadn’t come close to meeting our monthly business goals in nearly a year. Wooing new students was difficult with scuffed floors, flimsy desks and bare patches of wall where cheap wallpaper paste had lost the battle against Japanese humidity. Many of the students we did have had been scared away by my perpetually unshaven and hung-over British predecessor, who was finally fired for playing Fatboy Slim to a class of 6-year-olds.

I wasn’t doing much to help the situation. I’d fallen in love with Japan during a summer internship in Tokyo and a semester in Kyoto, and had decided to go back to teach English after graduation. The large chain of schools that hired me said I’d be going… More…

When I lived in Japan I joined a flower arrangement club. I didn’t have any interest in flowers, or tradition, or grace, so it was an odd move.

I did, however, have a friend who was the president of the Ikebana club at our university, who had helped me out a lot in the first months of school. In classes Ryoko made sure I was following along by grabbing my sleeve and whispering, “Understand, Emi?” She blinked a lot and made audible breathing-in noises whenever she was about to explain something difficult or ask me a question she thought I could potentially answer no to. So when she invited me to come watch her Ikebana club, I could only say yes.

The sensei, who was in her late 70s, helped me prune my branches and buds into the appropriate shapes. Then she impaled them at specific angles onto a square… More…