It was the only way I could return for my senior year at the University of California, Irvine with anything near Japanese fluency.
I had just completed a 10-month program at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. I had wanted to study in Tokyo, but only Tohoku U. offered enough computer science classes.
I had seven weeks until UC classes resumed in late September. I chose to travel to Japan’s northernmost region, Hokkaido, because it holds 20% of Japan’s land mass but only 5% of its population, and while Tokyo averages a humid 31°C in August, Hokkaido averages a pleasant 26°C with less humidity.
The trip was to last 10 days. I would fly to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest but Japan’s 5th largest city, rent a car with a Japanese GPS, and drive in a clockwise circle until I arrived again in Sapporo for 2 more nights.
I knew it would be difficult, but I was committed to improving my communication in Japanese. I had always done well in language classes: I’m good with rules. But when I try to speak Japanese, I stall. Hence my one rule for the trip: No English.
The trip had been great so far. I saw the flower farms of Furano, the Asahiyama Zoo, the prison museum in Abashiri, and bears on the border of the Shiretoko Peninsula. I hiked by gorges, lakes, and mountains. I visited an Ainu village, where many of Hokkaido’s indigenous people still live.
Everyone had been so friendly: the gift shop owner who surprised me with a cup of tea while I browsed, the guy selling ice cream who told me all about the local baseball team, the hotel clerk who taught me some everyday Japanese phrases when he noticed that I struggled.
I kept a pocket dictionary with me at all times
on the trip. It led to some slow conversations, but everyone had been patient with me. “[pause] Chōshoku [pause] wa nanji desu ka,” I would say for example, checking the dictionary first. (“What time is breakfast?”)
I left the Ainu village in the afternoon. It was 3 hours and 59 minutes from Sapporo, but between stopping to look up words from the GPS and struggling to find a place for dinner, I made it only halfway and stopped for the night at a resort in Tomamu. Before I went to my room, the hotel clerk told me in English, “You must go to the Unkai Terrace.”
“Hai, arigatō gozaimasu,” I replied. (“Okay, thank you.”)
“You must wake up early. Very early, before sunrise.”
I looked up unkai: sea of clouds.
The alarm clock blares at 4 AM. I turn away, press the pillow against my exposed ear, and groan. After a full minute of agonizing beeps, I spin around and smack the clock silent.
With heavy eyes and a headache that feels like I wear a weighted hat, I drive to the mountain with the Unkai Terrace atop it. There are already 8 other cars in the parking lot. I pay the 1,800 yen for the gondola ride.
“Welcome to the Unkai Terrace,” the vendor says, smiling.
I bow to her, more of a quick nod. “Arigatō gozaimasu.”
Two American tourists stand on the gondola with me. He wears a sweatshirt and a New York Yankees hat. She wears ugg boots and chews gum. They both wear blue jeans.
“Hey, a hometowner,” the man says with a New York accent as the gondola starts. Then to me: “How ya doin’?”
“Gomen nasai,” I say. “Eigo ga wakarimasen.” (“I’m sorry. I don’t understand English.”)
“What is he, a clown?” the man asks the woman.
She looks at me. “HOW. ARE. YOU. DO–ING?” she says wide-mouthed before resuming her gum-chewing.
I shrug and shake my head.
“Must be European,” she says to him.
He narrows his eyes at me. “Yea. Must be.”
I look out the gondola and watch the cars shrink.
The gondola sways as it stops at the terrace. I follow the New York couple out the door.
The air is cool, the sky a clear, light blue with emerging shades of orange and pink. There’s a scattered crowd of other visitors sitting at small, round tables and sipping tea.
I step to the edge of the terrace. A vast, billowy sheet of white clouds stretches below my feet. Mountain peaks poke above in the distance. I feel like I’m walking on air.
I forgot my camera in the car, but that’s okay. A photo would not recreate the feeling. When I leave, the experience will fade like a dream upon waking – all the more reason to enjoy it now.
The New York couple stands beside me. “Friggin’ beautiful,” the woman says.
The man nods then looks at me. “Friggin’ beautiful, eh?”
I smile then face the clouds. Sō desu ne, I think. (“Yes it is.”)
published 14 May 2014