By Christian Brice
I’d say my favorite part of doing the Japan LBAT in the small, sleepy Kyushu city of Beppu was feeling the warmth of its laid-back residents, always eager to share tales of their “inaka” (countryside) lives in exchange for curious stories from foreigners like me. I found a family-away-from-home in my amazing homestay family: the father owned a 7/11 near the house, the mother took care of their two elementary school-aged sons, living in a modern home connected to the traditional wooden home of the kids’ grandparents. It’s been around a year and a half since I stayed the weekend as part of my program, and since then we’ve kept in touch and even exchanged gifts from afar: they directed tea and sweets native to their rustic, countryside hometown to my family, and I responded with the chocolate-chip Pop Tarts and sugar cookies that I missed oh-so-much while I was in Japan.
After I finished Japan LBAT, while I was at Tokyo Tech for an academic-year research exchange program, I took a long weekend that I had to fly down to Beppu and visit my second family once again. Arriving to smiling faces and promises of new adventures, I set out with the mother and youngest boy to visit some shrines deep in the low mountains near their home.
As an avid photographer, visiting these shrines nestled in the countryside of southwestern Japan had me overjoyed – it was like we’d taken the side-road 20 years into the past instead of 20 minutes north of their home. As the mother briefly explained the history and uniqueness of the four different shrines we stopped at, her little boy – with that childish bravado that makes you crack a nostalgic smile – would diligently throw a couple of 100-yen coins into the receptacle in front of the weathered statues every time.
After eating lunch at the ubiquitous Japanese “family restaurant” Gusto later that day, we stopped by a toy store that seemed like it hadn’t changed since the young boy’s grandparents were his age. This blast to the past was crowded with antique metal toy cars, wooden figurines of staple Japanese cartoons both old and new, and enough cheap candy and snacks to last any energetic elementary schooler a month.
Walking up to the counter with a small “omiyage” (souvenir) for myself, the lonely shop-owner smiled kindly and chatted with my homestay mother while I fumbled for exact change. For a moment it felt like I could live here forever and never feel alone. The innumerable small shrines, endless rice fields, cozy wooden homes, and people so warm they’d rival the relaxing hot natural baths of Beppu – were the charming character of this region that drew me back to visit. I’ve experienced so much and yet keep learning new things like the curious tradition of repurposing old clothes, tools, and trinkets into “living mannequins” in a freeze-frame preservation of the communities of generations past. In this case, a bright-hearted teenager with a penchant for making others smile.
Japan was a huge rollercoaster of experiences, sometimes going too fast for me to catch my breath and other times letting me relax and soak in its unique culture and traditions. Becoming a member of this family has given me experiences and feelings that I can’t do justice to with words alone. I look forward to sharing more of my experiences and pictures in future blog posts.