Making Nihon your second home
By Jonathan Fisher
On a recent trip to Fukuoka, I found myself at one of those charming yattai stall restaurants dining shoulder-to-shoulder with a pair of ladies who likely possessed vivid memories of the Second World War. Already one glass of shochu into my solo ramen feast, I was feeling vigorous and conversational, so I ventured a comment in my best bad Japanese as to the quality of these ladies’ yakitori skewers, which had just arrived in front of them, hot off the hibachi. This, as expected, drew the very familiar, curious first question: doko kara kitano? Where the heck did you come from, you Japanese-talking white boy, you?
My stock answer, now, after eight months of living here and travelling around Japan, constantly hearing this question from Japanese shocked/charmed by my clumsy manners and tipsy conversation is: “Kure City in Hiroshima Prefecture!” To which the most common answer is an astonished, “eehhh?!” or, as in this case, some comment to the effect of, “You don’t look like you’re from Hiroshima.” On that particular occasion in Fukuoka, I was taken aback, not really because of these ladies’ good, old-fashioned prejudice, but because, I began to actually wonder about what exactly my justification for such a bold statement as, “I come from Kure City, Hiroshima Prefecture,” might be. Although I’m clearly what you would call a hen-na gaijin, I’ve lived in Kure for almost a year, I’m all set to receive my economic stimulus check for official residents of Japan only; but am I really a proper citizen of this fair prefecture, my fair city, beloved furusato?
So, with all of the familiar emotional baggage of being seen as a foreigner, I resolved to prove to myself that I was a bona fide Hiroshima-ite. I decided to do my best with my limited linguistic prowess, to uncover all that authenticity that my newly adopted hometown had to offer. It’s been a quest saturated in a certain insecurity — let’s call it my “gaijin complex” — to be sure. But my quest has led me to experience some corners of my little furusato which might have remained mysterious forever had I not just been nosey and determined as I was to certify to myself my own private citizenship here.
I finally made an appointment at the barber adjacent to my apartment, where I learned that the proprietors had been eyeing me (or more accurately, eyeing my hair and beard) for months as I had passed by on my bicycle in the mornings en route to work. The folks there were as generous and kind as they were skilled with their shears. I’ve got a monthly appointment now, and a whole new set of young, hip Japanese friends who are more than happy to clue me in to the latest in pop culture in exchange for an English conversation over drinks at the local izakaya.
Likewise, one not-so-lazy Saturday, I got fed up with my usual coffee routine, and decided to venture off into the mountains surrounding the city. I was not at all disappointed. Twenty-five minutes of walking brought me to a gorgeous park, full of cherry trees ready to bloom, the source of one of Kure’s two major rivers flowing among the rocks above and below me. I had no idea such a beautiful place existed within the boundaries of the city. And it would seem that not so many of the Japanese people living here do either; I only saw two other people there that day during my peaceful hours’ stay. I’ve since claimed that river park as my personal getaway spot, and proof positive of my unofficial official residence in Kure.
Perhaps you’re seeking some more steadfast claim of furusato-ship in the town where you’re living now. Maybe you too would like to give your visa status a little extra juice next time you’re trying to impress a Japanese stranger. Might I recommend that generic specialty food your place is so famous for? Sure its ramen /yaki-niku /okonomiyaki/ whatever, but it’s got that extra local kick that makes it worth going out of your way for. My theory is that being from your hometown is so much sweeter when you can recommend its specialty food to an outsider. So, with that in mind, I’ve lately been (perhaps bordering on obsessively) trying out new restaurants in town. To be sure, not all of the places I’ve been to have been places I’ll return to; but trying a new place every time, you get a much greater variety of Japanese style food. And there really is a lot of variation on the familiar themes available if you’re willing to take a risk and try something new.
Maybe you’re more comfortable with your status as an outsider. Likely you are fine with the place you get your haircut already, or you’re not especially keen to take long walks apparently to nowhere on the off chance that you’ll end up somewhere slightly more interesting. But I say, you owe it to yourself to branch out a bit. There are plenty of exciting things available to you in your adopted hometown, right under your nose! So, next time you’re considering heading into Hiroshima or Okayama for the weekend, consider sticking closer to home. You owe it to yourself to build up some small-town Japan pride, or at least some ammunition for the next time a Japanese person asks you where you came from.