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2015 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 2nd Place Winner

The Girl Who Went to the Moon

Article and photos by Brooke Griffin

Above Toyomi, Japan
Above Toyomi, Japan.

The bullet train out of Tokyo is packed with pressed white shirts, black suits, and briefcases. When I disembark at the city of Koriyama, it takes a while to find the local train that will deliver me to my next destination. When I finally find my platform, I feel like I’m boarding the train in Spirited Away, rickety and old and filled with an eclectic variety of people. Once the train sets off, terraced hills of farmland roll past us at a modest pace, revealing rice paddy after rice paddy. Upon finally reaching Aizuwakamatsu, I hop off and am greeted by a local high school marching band performing in front of the station. They’re not performing for me, but it feels like they might as well be. In addition, there to greet me is Kentaro, the host who will determine the course of my life for the next four weeks.

Kentaro is old and young. Despite being in his 60s, he is one of those people you can immediately picture at seven years old because he still has that unselfconscious grin of a child. He shakes my hand vigorously while I laugh and bow clumsily. His English is a mess but I love it because my Japanese is a mess too, so we speak a funny pidgin of the two. It’s a hot September day and he throws open the trunk of his minivan so I can toss my backpack in, and that’s when I see there’s somebody in the backseat. “My mother wants to meet you, she is 91 years old” Kentaro explains, as an elderly woman attempts to turn her head to look at me. I walk around to the passenger seat to smile at her, and I see that she is beautiful. She falls asleep immediately as we start the drive home, a destination that turns out to be almost 90 minutes away.

For the first half of the car ride, Kentaro uses his limited English to try to tell me how wonderful I am. “Everybody else says they will come but nobody comes, and now you are here! You are wonderful! I am waiting two years and nobody comes! Wonderful!” I laugh some more and try to ask my own questions while answering his, but I get the sense that I won’t really know where I’m going until I’m there. The highway out of Aizuwakamatsu is surrounded by sprawling farmland beneath lovely mountains, but it is still bears many marks of a city — an example of Japan’s “rural-urban fringe” that I read about before coming here. Kentaro pops in a mix CD that somebody made for him, filled with an equal number of bad pop songs in English and bad pop songs in Japanese. When a 1980s American love ballad comes on, Kentaro eagerly asks “I don’t understand this song. What is she saying?” I listen to the words of the song and remember a word we learned in class, shitsurenshimasu, which means “to be disappointed in love.” The Japanese have a word for everything. I explain “Kanojo wa shitsurenshita” which means “She was disappointed in love” and Kentaro laughed as I realized he probably already had that much figured out.

Brooke and Kentaro on the first day
Brooke and Kentaro on the first day.

As we drive further and further, the signs of city life trickle away until suddenly we’re alone on the road. And while I know the lovely mountains are still there, I am too distracted by the interfering scenery of towering dark green trees and a crystal blue river that peeks out here and there off to the right side of the highway. Anticipation is starting to build in me that I haven’t felt before on my travels, a realization that I’m in for something… different.

I originally became interested in Kentaro because he’s a sculptor living in a very rural area of Japan, and I’m eager to learn about what role the arts play in agricultural communities. However, honestly, going in that’s about all I knew. I have a short list of rules that function as a sort of personal code for my travels. Topping my list is Ichiban (#1) Rule, the most important advice I can give to anyone who is diving into authentic culture-oriented travel: no expectations. Going along with this rule, I try to do as little research as possible about the place I’m going, instead focusing on finding people who seem kind and enthusiastic about cultural exchange. When I told Japanese friends that I was headed out to the rural prefecture of Niigata, most responded that they had never been there and had no intention of going. The prefecture is famous for its high-quality rice and high-quantity snow, but that’s about all that anybody I met knew about my destination.

Because of all this, I was not prepared for Toyomi. When we finally break free from the thick forest of trees, I can see that we’re following the river, weaving between gorgeous mountains. Everything seems to become increasingly poetic as we putter along, the only car in this mysterious valley. On a road that seems to be carved out of the mountainside, we pass through twelve wonderful tunnels, each named for one of the twelve months. After the tunnels, we cross a series of long lean bridges, each painted in a different color. Toyomi’s color is red, which I find out as we cross this wonderful structure that I will wake up to every morning for the next four weeks.

We’re here. It’s a tiny street of tiny old Japanese houses. That’s it, that’s Toyomi. One house is unlike any of the others, painted a garish turquoise with paint dripped all over the driveway and scaffolding surrounding the front door. We pull into this driveway as Kentaro asks, “Do you like it?” pointing at the façade. I laugh and nod because I don’t know what else to do. As you might have noticed, this kind of interaction happens quite often. Kentaro runs into the big blue house to get a wheelchair for his mother and I help her out of the van, for which she is infinitely grateful. I am, in turn, grateful for her gratitude, and we giggle like schoolgirls as I bow to her and she smiles up from her wheelchair.

The blue house
The blue house.

Instead of heading into the big blue house as I expected, we wheel Obaachan (“Grandma”) next door into an old traditional wood house. “This is my wife’s restaurant,” Kentaro explains as we slide the doors open and several people rush out to greet us. I meet my new mother whom everybody in the restaurant calls Okaasan (“mother”) and she says in English, “Hello Brooke!” which is the most wonderful thing to hear in a foreign country. I am offered a seat and an afternoon snack that is just an ear of corn. This seems funny to me until I bite into it and understand why they wanted this to be the first thing I tasted in their home. Sweet, simple, delicious.

I close my eyes in delight and grin sheepishly as the juice drips down my chin, and everyone laughs. Looking around, I take in the faces of my new friends and answer questions in that lovely English-Japanese pidgin language. Here it’s more fun because everyone around the table will argue over the English translation of what they’re trying to say, until finally they all agree on something that makes absolutely no sense to me. Similarly, half of what I say in Japanese is met by blank stares—or more accurately, blank smiles. And I realize amidst this wonderful chaos that this is simultaneously the most welcomed I have ever felt anywhere and the furthest out of my element I have ever been.

Listening to Kentaro and the others discuss their plans to keep me busy in the coming weeks, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear that Kentaro is planning a big art show that happens to take place during my stay. Beyond that, I understand very little, but I guess it doesn’t matter because Kentaro jumps up and signs for me to follow with my backpack. Something you have to understand about Kentaro is that he never walks; he is always scuttling — sometimes on the point of running—to his destination. His movements are sharp, quick, and directed, and I’m always stumbling behind, trying to catch my breath. He grabs some keys from inside the blue house and we scuttle/stumble along the one tiny street. After a few blocks, we turn and end up at a small traditional-looking house, unlock the door, and are suddenly surrounded by stone figures. Foxes, squirrels, owls, monkeys, all the creatures of the forest look up at me in perfectly chiseled silence. “This is my art museum. You sleep here,” Kentaro says to me, grinning, as he slides open a door to reveal a small bedroom.

This time I can’t contain myself, exclaiming “Ehhh? Sugoi! Subarashii!” which roughly translates to “No way, this is amazing! It’s wonderful!” He is pleased with my reaction but before I can settle with my new little friends, he gives me the same sign as before to come along to the next stop on our journey. We run back to his house and jump into a truck large enough to carry horses and drive back towards the red bridge, this time stopping at rice fields right before the river. I hadn’t realized when we drove into the village that these were Kentaro’s fields, but now it makes sense as I realize they are filled with all kinds of strange sculptures. There are games you can play with friends, a small playground, and many sculptures that are intended for looking at, not interacting with. And yes, these are all in the rice fields. I stand there amazed, but as usual I don’t have time to be amazed because Kentaro is already off to work.

My first day in Toyomi we are setting half of the rice fields on fire. I’m not joking, Kentaro hands me a box of matches, shows me what to do, and says, “Fun!” with his seven-year-old smile. I set fire to the parts of the field where the rice had already been harvested, and he was right in predicting that I would enjoy watching the flames slowly lick their way down each row. Kentaro thinks of something else and runs off, and then before I know it I see him running back again. He now has his camera and tripod and is taking self-timed photos of us working together. In these photos I am always giggling uncontrollably at how ridiculous I feel. We spend my first afternoon in this way, and by dinnertime I’m hungry for an actual meal, exhausted by Kentaro’s excessive store of energy, and reeking of smoke.

A rice field on fire
A rice field on fire.

As we drive back to the house, I notice that the sun has already made most of its journey across the sky and casts a beautiful light over the single-street village. When we arrive home and run over to the restaurant next door, the table is already set for us and the restaurant employees. Kentaro shows me the beautiful spread of food and explains, “We are vegetarian, four years ago I got cancer, and we stopped eating meat. All of this is very very healthy! And my wife is a very good cook!” I nod obediently but wonder if I’ll really fill up from just rice and vegetables. Once we sit down to eat, I fill my plate with some of the vegetarian dishes and say “Itadakimasu,” which means “Thank you for the meal.” Okaasan glances over at me and raises her eyebrows suggestively. “You drink… beer?” she asks. I laugh and decline the offer, but she mistakes the laugh for a “Yes” and before I know it we’re clinking our glasses and saying, “Kanpai!” which is Japan’s “Cheers!” Kentaro doesn’t drink, and he explains that since his cancer diagnosis he has given up all alcohol.

The vegetable dishes are incredible. This experience turned me into a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since. There’s fish too, which I realize is still considered to be “vegetarian” by this family. The black rice, as I was warned, is the best rice I have ever had (and probably will ever have) in my life. I eat until I’m stuffed while everyone compliments my chopstick handling, and afterward we all sit and talk at the table for almost two hours. Among friends, the time flies. I feel like I’ve found home somehow, like this place is more home than home could possibly be. I say “Gochisosamadeshita” which means, “I’ve had plenty,” and by the time I’m sent off to bed, I’ve had three glasses of beer (far beyond my usual limit) and have to find my way back to the art museum in the dark. No, I’m not drunk just a little, well, off balance. And I certainly can’t remember where I need to turn to get to the museum.

Vegetarian meal and beer
Vegetarian meal and beer.

As I’m traversing each block, since I know I have to find it eventually in this tiny town, I casually look up and stop in my tracks. Above me are thousands upon thousands of stars, as if God spilled his salt right here over Toyomi and the rest of the world is just seeing the few grains that scattered in other directions. I crane my neck and spin in circles until I’m dizzy, I can see galaxies. I’m on the verge of tears as my body is filled with that wonderful sense of how small I am and how being small doesn’t necessarily mean being unimportant. After all, look at Toyomi. Small, but perfect. Or perhaps better said: Small is perfect.

When I finally arrive at the art museum, it’s probably been almost 45 minutes since I left the restaurant. Unlocking the door, I find my bedroom, which I now realize is just an empty square room with tatami mat floors. I open the closet and pull out my futon, which is not the same as a Western futon but rather a sort of mattress that you can roll out onto the floor. This is the way the Japanese have slept for thousands of years, and I feel like I have some deep connection to history as I snuggle under several blankets on this cool summer night. As I set my alarm for early the next morning, I notice that it’s not even nine o’clock yet. But I’m too tired to care and pass out immediately in my buzzed joy from the long day.

At 6:45 my alarm starts beeping and I turn it off drowsily, rolling around in more blankets on this surprisingly cold morning. But I know breakfast is at seven, so I suck it up and layer on some fresh clothes, grabbing my hat and the towel I hung around my neck the previous day. Walking back to the house, I stop to gaze at the red bridge and the green mountains shrouded in clouds. I eventually show up at the house around 7:05 and bow to Obaachan who sits in a recliner right in front of the entryway. “Ohayougozaimasu!” she says and I repeat it back, meaning “Good morning!” “Did you sleep okay? And wake up okay?” Okaasan asks, and I affirm that I am, indeed, okay. But Kentaro is nowhere to be seen, and I figure out from Okaasan’s explanation in Japanese that he has gone to look for me because I was 5 minutes late. I remind myself never to show up late again, noting that this was a rookie’s mistake. We didn’t even learn the word for “late” in Japanese class because our teacher said we should never have to use it.

Kentaro soon rushes in, overjoyed to see that I did indeed find my way back. But his home is pretty hard to miss, after all. We seat ourselves and say, “Itadakimasu,” and I look down at my plate to see little fishies about six inches long, fully formed and with eyes looking back up at me. I watch Okaasan delicately pick up her fish with her chopsticks and nonchalantly bite the head off. Returning to my own plate, I know I am not capable of such a feat. I tear the fish in half with my chopsticks and start from the middle, and am surprised by how good it is. I slurp at my miso and pick at the rice in my bowl, but Kentaro stops me. “No, like this,” he says and shows me a certain way of holding the rice and soup bowls as I eat from them. Indeed, I notice that everyone else at the table is taking this form, so I observe and mimic to their delight (and my own).

After this meal, I become more attentive to my eating style. I fill my diary with lengthy descriptions of Okaasan’s manner of eating; it is artful to say the least. There is not only a patience to it, but a sort of contemplation of the food. You admire your meal before consuming it, and even more so while chewing it. It reminds me of the way you might admire a painting in a gallery, initially just studying the content and technique of the image before looking into yourself to see how the painting resonates within you, how your body responds to it.

Breakfast is simply a delight. I help Obaachan pick up the grains of rice that have fallen into her lap and she thanks me and squeezes my hand tightly. Kentaro asks if I can guide her back to her recliner as they clean up, and I walk slowly next to her as she keeps her hold on my hand and puts her weight on me. She might be half my size—she seems so tiny. Both of my grandmothers died when I was quite young, so this kind of intimate interaction is quite new to me and becomes one of my favorite things to do during my stay. Sometimes it takes ten minutes to move from one side of the room to the other depending upon on any obstacles. Watching Kentaro help his mother is also wonderful, because he usually moves at such a quick pace. However, with Obaachan leaning on him for support, he slows down gracefully. The whole world slows down with Obaachan, and in many ways I think it’s a better world than the fast-paced one I often inhabit.

After clean up, Kentaro lies down on the tatami floor (there’s no couch, the floor is the couch) and shows me photos of his trip to Greece, along with a book he wrote about cultural exchange. It is not until we are clicking through pictures on his laptop that I realize I haven’t seen a computer since I got here. I am quite pleased with this, and the fact that I have no internet connection in the art museum. I can spend my nights writing in my diary without the temptations of technology.

By eight o’clock we’re ready to head out to the rice fields once again, equipped this time with rain boots, gloves, and scythes. Today we are not burning the fields, but rather harvesting rice—by hand. Seeing how much rice there is left to harvest, I find this a bit daunting. However, there are two other workers to help us as well as many sculptures in the field to keep us company. We all squat down and start cutting and I am thankful for the rain boots because with every step I sink several inches into mud. One of the men helping, an older fellow with glasses, sees me cutting and shakes his head, squatting next to me to show me proper technique. He twists his left arm so his pinky is turned up to the sky and grabs the rice overhand, then sharply twists the stems so they’re tight and slashes with the scythe. The whole motion takes about half a second, and when I try it takes me significantly longer. He laughs and shows me again, and soon I’ve got it.

I cut quickly and efficiently after this, to the shock of the others who didn’t see the demonstration I received. When you’ve cut enough to fill both your hands, you wrap it with a dried stem and tie it off, then hang it out to dry over the fence. Harvesting the entire field takes us several days in the September heat, when a machine might have finished the job in an afternoon. But that’s not the point, Kentaro explains to me. This is how Japanese families have harvested rice for generations, if it was good enough for them why shouldn’t it be good enough for us? Squatting for hours over the course of several days strengthens my legs, while the calm meditative cutting routine strengthens my spirit. I love Kentaro and his family and all of my experiences with them, but I have always cited this peaceful harvest as my favorite experience in Japan.

The big art show I heard about when I first arrived is just around the corner. Many artists stop by in the days before the show to set up sculptures in the field alongside Kentaro’s. Everyone in the village has been curious to meet me and I befriend Kentaro’s 87-year-old neighbor and a 12-year-old boy, who is one of only two children in the village. Kentaro jokingly explains to me, “My wife and I, we are young here. My mother is the average age. You are baby.” But it seems to be true; I am the only person in town between the ages of 13 and 45. Oftentimes at the end of a workday, Kentaro drives me to neighboring villages or shows me projects he’s worked on around the community. One day, he drives me to the local elementary school that was shut down five years ago and turned into a retirement community center. He foresees that this is where his village is going, that soon there will be no one left.

Evening dinner before art show
Evening dinner before art show.

I begin to understand that this is why Kentaro has organized his annual art show for the past twelve years. Every October, people from all over the area and even distant cities drive out to tiny Toyomi to see live music performances that happen in Kentaro’s rice fields. It is not for him, it’s for the community, to show everyone how beautiful this tiny village is and how spirited its residents are.

When the day of the big art show finally arrives, Kentaro’s friends from all over Japan have come to Toyomi to help out. I put on my best dress, which is just a simple cotton day dress but is far more flattering than my usual sweatpants and T-shirt fashion. The restaurant that is usually quite empty is now overflowing with guests, and as I serve soba noodles and tempura to these friends, I receive many compliments and eager handshakes. “Brooke! I know you, I read Kentaro’s blog,” many people explain to me, and I suddenly desperately want to know what Kentaro’s blog says about me, and if it is perhaps true that these people really do know me from his descriptions.

It is an absolute joy to walk out to the rice fields with new friends and learn about everyone. I see pictures of everyone’s nieces and granddaughters that are my age, have my future told by a Japanese fortune-teller, and receive more gifts than I can carry in my arms. The festival is incredible, with plenty of traditional Japanese music and dance acts mixed in with contemporary dancers twirling around the sculptures, acoustic and folk singers, and even a solo screamo performance. I watch with Obaachan while more and more people come up to introduce themselves, tell me their story in whatever English they can speak. I am struck by the earnest kindness of all these strangers, their willingness to struggle for words in a difficult language when I am in their country afraid to speak Japanese.

Dancer in rice field at festival
Dancer in the rice field at the festival.

By dinnertime, the final act (an interpretive dance to a traditional folk song, in which most of the dancers are Japanese men in drag) is wrapping up. We applaud and everyone congratulates each other, agreeing that the art show was a big success. The mayor of the region came out for the festival and even the governor of the Niigata prefecture stopped by, which is the equivalent of a state governor coming to an event in the United States. It isn’t until dinner that it sinks in how big this all is, that perhaps the fate of these disappearing villages is not set in stone, it’s something that we have control over as a society. The loss of places like Toyomi would be a devastating loss for humanity, a loss of diversity in an increasingly globalized world. I had to fly across an ocean to figure this out, but now I’m inextricably implicated in this rural revitalization effort by simply showing that there is outside interest in this lifestyle, this community, this tiny village.

On this celebratory night, Kentaro drinks for the first time since I’ve been here. In fact, everybody drinks. The restaurant is bustling with the joy of friends old and new, coming together to show how much they care. My thoughts drift to my own family and the Thanksgivings and Christmases I’ve missed, the countless times I’ve forgotten my parents’ and my brother’s birthdays. Pangs of guilt and remorse drip onto my good mood like red wine on a white cloth, and I try to focus on the present without allowing myself to forget these important feelings.

I always sit next to Kentaro at the table, and, when the evening chatter begins to bore him, he’ll often turn to me and talk about international exchange, or tell me stories from his life, or explain what everyone is talking about in Japanese. This time, however, he leans over and speaks the best English I’ve heard since coming here (alcohol will do that, it helps my Japanese too).

“There is a Japanese folk tale,” he begins, “the tale of Kaguyahime, do you know it?” I shake my head no, so he elaborates. The story is about an older couple who always wanted children but had none. One day the old man is cutting bamboo and finds that a single stalk is glowing with light. He cuts it open and discovers a baby inside. He brings her home to his wife, and together they raise this child from the bamboo as their own. She grows up to be very beautiful, but she is somehow not their child even though they raised her. Every time there is a full moon, she looks up to the night sky with tears in her eyes. I am reminded of my own first night in Toyomi, spinning underneath the cloudless starry sky with tears in my own eyes. “And then,” Kentaro says, “She leaves. She goes to the moon.”

The sunset in Toyomi
The sunset in Toyomi.

He loses me here. “What?” I ask in confusion. “She is from the moon,” he explains, “It is her home. She goes back to her real family.” I am struck by an immense sadness upon hearing this. Her real family. “You, you are the girl who goes to the moon,” Kentaro explains to me, although I had already realized this before he said it. I fight back tears among these friends, this happy time, knowing that he is right.

But he doesn’t have to be right. Maybe Toyomi is my moon. And I’m not Kaguyahime, I’m Brooke. I’m writing my own story, not living out a folk tale. Maybe I belong wherever I can make a difference, and it wasn’t until visiting to the moon that I learned I could take the moon’s spirit with me wherever I go. Kindness, generosity, patience, and a dedication to a life that means something to me—that is the essence of the moon. I can’t help but wonder if there are incredible rural villages like Toyomi in America that I’ve turned a blind eye to, and people like Kentaro fighting to make them seen and known. I think of my own family back home and how, in many ways, I’ve been a better daughter to Kentaro in these four weeks than I have to my own family for 22 years.

The moon may seem distant and foreign, but it is actually theorized to be a chunk of our own Earth, broken off, and left to circle us from a safe distance. I hope I can teach others what the moon has taught me, although I think the best way to learn from the good people of the moon is to take a chance and go find them yourself.

Brooke Griffin is a recent graduate of Harvard University. She is an animator on a yearlong fellowship in Japan, exploring the dynamic relationship between the visual arts and rural lifestyles.

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