The toilet bowl was in the ground.
I glared at the one-way plane ticket in my hand as if it owed me an explanation. Not thirty seconds on land and already I was out of my element, in what was to be my new home for the next eighteen-to-twenty-four-months-or-until-your-husband’s-assignment-is-complete. Though far from a dirt hole, this was no porcelain throne as I knew it. No toilet seat, no instruction manual, just a ground-level porcelain bowl with a metal safety bar bolted into the wall alongside it. The toilet taunted me, looking up as if to say: I knew you couldn’t hack it. Determined, I threw down my luggage, hung my winter coat on the stall hook and grabbed a hold of what was shaping up to be the biggest adventure of my life.
I write to you now many months wiser, having thankfully overcome the fear and uncertainty inherent in a move halfway around the world. While I still wander the urban, tree-lined streets of Nagoya and Sakae nearly every day with bright-eyed wonder – discovering a new shop here or a dance troupe there, invigorated by the region’s thumping energy and peaceful, respectful culture – I walk with newfound knowledge of myself and a deep appreciation for the land and its people.
My time here has inspired me to live better, not only for myself but for all living things. Through my experiences and personal interactions, I have cultivated a greater sense of honesty, respect, and mindfulness. Small homes and food portions teach me not to waste. Strong recycling programs, trash-free streets and thousands of bicycles remind me of the importance of preserving the Earth. Neat lines in the crowded subway and train stations prove a quiet order can exist amongst chaos. Gift-giving and bowing communicate respect, and serve as small reminders that chivalry is not dead. The streets are safe, the people kind; favoring harmony over violence, they teach me to trust.
On any given day I hear chatter wafting up to my apartment balcony, either from people enjoying the ubiquitous sunshine in Shirakawa Park, or the giggling armies of school children on their way to the Brother Earth Planetarium and Science Center across the street. For someone used to months of cold, sunless winter days, having the option of jogging in the sunshine or simply enjoying the calm rush of wind through the trees in February is heavenly.
A stroll in any direction from Shirakawa Park finds seemingly infinite restaurants, cafes, bars and shops to explore, from bargain basement to some of the finest shopping in the world. The Nagoya area is comprised of prosperous, bustling cities that manage to achieve that delicate, near impossible balance of urban vibrancy, remarkable cleanliness, and civilized order. Spring and summer boast a plethora of lively festivals on Otsu-dori , the main shopping drag, also home to dozens of restaurants. Many regions of the world occupy a piece of Nagoya’s culinary pie, from France to Turkey to Korea and Italy. Japanese options are also endless and vary in the type of food offered and the way it is prepared (in many cases right at the table): stick with familiar restaurants like sushi and teppanyaki or try your taste buds at shabu-shabu, yakitori, yakiniku or tonkatsu establishments.
Virtually any destination on the island is accessible via clean, safe, public transportation. Nagoya Station, one of the world’s largest train stations by floor area, provides a one-stop shop for easy access to subway, train, or shinkansen, Japan’s famous bullet train capable of reaching speeds up to three hundred kilometers per hour. Less than two hours on the train, so quiet and smooth it feels like a jet flying through the country, will take you to the Buddhist temples of Nara, the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the floating shrine of Miyajima, the breathtaking snowy Alps or any number of sparkling beaches.
In retrospect, I came up with a dozen reasons to back out of the move: my mother’s health was declining, I enjoyed my career, my six-month-old nephews would forget who I was. But I’ve come to realize there is never that perfect time – that one shining moment where the moon is high and the stars align – to pick up and leave everything you’ve ever known behind. To leave is to take a leap of faith you can only hope will make you stronger.
I intend to carry that strength, and everything Japan has taught me, all the way home.
About the Author: Shannon Guerreso: I am a native of Detroit, Michigan and am currently writing and studying Japanese in Sakae, Japan (Nagoya). A former Human Resource professional, I recently left my career to pursue my writing passion, teach English, and travel Asia with my husband. I am currently working on a memoir, a collection of short stories and a travel collection. Feel free to visit my new blog, chronicling my journey at: http://www.sashimiandthecity.blogspot.jp/