Soaking up My Last Month

Written by Megan McClory, (Brandeis University) Student Correspondent CET Japan, Spring 2017

When you’re in a new country, there is never enough time.

Sure, when you just get here or those times when you’re feeling homesick, those few months feel like all the time in the world. But then you sit back and realize, in a few months, you won’t be able to stop by your favorite restaurant after class. You’ll have to go back to using forks and knives instead of chopsticks and, in just a little bit, speaking Japanese will be relegated back to classroom work, rarely in use when you’re not sitting at a desk and scribbling on a worksheet. In just a few months, studying abroad will feel like dream.

Just a few months. Really, it’s not that long of a time, is it? You forget once you’ve fallen into a pattern of things, but I was reminded that my time in Japan is a precious and limited during our whirlwind adventure to Gifu prefecture this weekend. In just two days, we traveled hundreds of kilometers north to the rural village of Shirakawago, nestled among the mountains that were still clinging to winter, blanketed in snow, even as the sakura have started to bloom in Osaka.

When I first started seeing balding patches of snow from the bus, I was reminded first of home—Midwestern winters are known to be just as stubborn—but when I first saw the gassho houses, these peculiar, triangular buildings, centuries old, it hit me again, ah, right, this is Japan. Minkaen in Shirakawago is an outdoor museum with around a dozen of these buildings, as well a pond, store house and water mill and it’s like stepping back in time, like a historical amusement park, a miniature facsimile of a village. Quaint, is the first word that came to mind. Draped with snow, it almost looked like something one would find in a Christmas market, like handmade dolls’ houses. But when you notice the shape—said to look like hands in prayer—to Westerners like me, it becomes decidedly foreign. It reminded me that, as much as I love history, as many random facts as I know, in truth, I know very little about these people. Sure, I can recite dates and names from the famous Sengoku period and I’d even go as far as to say I’m pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the samurai warriors, but the everyday people? The farmers who build these houses? Who lived in these mountains? I’ve never come across that part of history before. It made me realize once again just how little Eastern history makes its way to American classrooms.

That night, we stayed at a ryokan, a traditional inn complete with onsen hot springs and that part, at least, I was familiar with and everything from the food to the room was just as fantastic as I had heard.

We started heading south again on Sunday, stopping at Hida no Sato to make some traditional crafts and visit Takayama-jinya, a government building in use for almost three centuries. We only had a couple hours to visit Takayama-jinya and wander the famous Old Town, for which I was rather disappointed. There was a lot to see, but not nearly enough time. When we were once more boarding the bus, getting ready to return to Osaka, it really hit me. It’s already April. Next month, I’m going home. I won’t be able to eat omurice at any old restaurant, or pray that the next open stall at the public bathroom is a western toilet and not a traditional hole in the ground. Soon, the only view I’ll have is flat lands and corn and not mountains dominating the distance. Public transport will be confined to the big city and dorayaki will be a much sought and rarely found treat. I only had two days in Gifu and I only have a few months in Japan. I need to remember not to waste it.