My final few days in Japan. All good things…

釈迦堂光明寺 (Shakadou Koumyou-ji) – a beautiful Buddhist temple in the heart of Akita City.

Of all the friends I have in Japan, few have displayed quite such a profound change as Koki, who is now a full-fledged Buddhist monk – shaved head and all! He also has one of the most fascinating and colourful biographies of anyone I know in Akita. Koki has competed internationally in tennis and boxing, studied in America and Hong Kong, speaks Japanese, Chinese and English, and is next in line to take over his family’s temple.

The family of the 北条氏 (Hōjō Clan). Or, for any Zelda fans out there: the Triforce.

Koki, acting as head monk for the day while his father was away on business, had offered to give me a full tour of the temple.

This also meant that I got a behind-the-scenes look at the rare statues which are usually only shown once a year.

Chants and sheet music for the traditional mokugyo drums.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Koki’s favourite part of his Buddhist teachings: the Harry Potter wand.

When in Rome…

I did, however, have to strip Koki of his own robes to get into them.

I also ended up staying several hours longer than I’d intended, and had to hoof it to make my next meeting…

Next up: a nostalgic walk through Senshu Park.

And my equally nostalgic companion for the day – Kurosawa sensei! The fourth (and sadly final) of my reunions with former teaching colleagues. Japanese teachers often rotate between schools every year, so Kurosawa sensei was one of the only colleagues with whom I worked for the whole time I was at my school.

Inside the Osumiyagura turret.


The manhole covers in Akita, celebrating the Kanto Festival (alas, another one that I was a few months too early to see).

With a few hours to kill before dinner, I also ended up revisiting my favourite mall in the city, which gave me the chance to a) catch up on men’s fashion in the Far East and b) flirt with the cute, fashionable sales boys whilst pretending that I was going to part with ¥30,000 for a pair of shoes.

That night: picking up Mihoko and saying farewell to Kaito.

After yet another dinner plan fell through (my very favourite restaurant having closed entirely mere months before I visited) we decided to eat at カトマン・ドゥ・キッチン (Kathmandu Chicken). RIP Soup Curry Savina: your kabocha soup curry with extra kabocha will be sorely missed.

Surprise guest: Izumi!

Who, in one of my greatest failures of observation to date, I didn’t immediately realise was pregnant.

Saying a sad goodbye to Mihoko.

Masao, Yukari, and a new addition since I last saw them!

My final day, and the most hilarious(ly ridiculous) incident of the entire trip. It began, innocently enough, with Yurie and I attempting to buy some postcards, when we made the fatal mistake of telling the old lady who ran that the store that we weren’t, in fact, a couple. From that moment onwards, it became her sworn duty to play matchmaker, and she proceeded to pinch our faces, asking me, “Isn’t she cute?” and Yurie, “Isn’t he handsome?” until we became so wildly uncomfortable that we grabbed the first three postcards we could find and attempted to flee the shop

After swearing that we would come back and see her one day (and listening to her rave nonsensically about a half-Japanese chef named Bellissimo, whose presence in the conversation we could in no way account for), we finally managed to round a corner, whereupon we assumed our ordeal was over and dissolved into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Mere seconds later, however, the same old lady came careening around the corner, waving two bags at us maniacally, and stroking our faces once again until we finally conceded that, yes, our love was meant to be. Inside: these two keyrings – a symbol of our fated union.

Going from bad to worse, we then attempted the ostensibly simple task of buying stamps for the postcards, which devolved into the three girls at the information desk spending a good 15 minutes on their computers, and finally attempting to phone their supervisor to confirm a price, by which stage I was genuinely at risk of missing my train and Yurie was in danger of murdering all three of them. Insult to injury: we never did get the stamps!

My last goodbyes, with Yurie and her family on the train platform. Thank you for everything! お世話になりました!かわいい姉さんとかっこいい兄さん一緒になる運命だ。

Occupying the 4-hour train back to Tokyo with those postcards. (Along with the remaining episodes of The Fall which I’d been trying to keep for the plane ride home.)

One last view of the Skytree on the Narita Express to the airport. (Little-known fact: Tokyo Airport? Not in Tokyo.)

Some quick souvenir shopping the next morning at the airport. Seen here: strawberry cheesecake and green tea/cherry blossom Kit Kats: just some of the countless flavours available in Japan. The reason they’ve so permeated the culture here? Kit Kats are actually given as good luck charms to students taking their high school/university entrance exams; the word itself sounding like the Japanese phrase “きっと勝つ” (kitto katsu), meaning “to certainly win” (or, in this case, pass). Homophonically speaking, it actually sounds more like “きっとカット” or “to certainly be cut”, but luckily for the good people at Nestle, no one seems to mind, and their grip on the Japanese chocolate market remains uncontested.

And finally: the plane ride home, the length of which I couldn’t even guage, but which was at least long enough for me to watch Big Eyes, Jupiter Ascending, Horrible Bosses 2 and The Big Lebowski before we even hit the 6-hour layover in Schiphol. I was sorely tempted to leave the airport and go into the city, but the exhaustion of the previous flight from Tokyo (coupled with the general exhaustion of having been travelling non-stop for the previous four weeks) was just enough to tip me into staying in the airport. One day, Amsterdam!

And, before I forget, one last shout-out to this guy. I swear I’m not sponsored by JR, I just can’t get over how useful that pass was. I added up all the journeys I’d taken at the end of my trip, and – not even counting internal travel within Tokyo – I’d used ¥117,740 worth of travel, saving me ¥69,940 overall.

This was my first trip back to Japan in almost five years, but reminded me – more than anything – of how it continues to be one of my favourite places in the world. Had I gone for a week, it would have felt like a holiday, but being there for a month was enough to make me feel home again. As with when I first left, however, what I mostly feel is grateful. For the people I met, the things I saw, and for giving me one more place in this world to call home. In the words of A.A. Milne, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

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