Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Japan: Okayama, My family hometown

"Where is your family from?" they ask.
"Japan," I reply.
"Right, but where in Japan?" they persist.
I let out a mental sigh trying to figure out the best way to describe the geography of Japan, knowing that nine times out of ten they will have know idea where I'm talking about.
"They're from's a small town in between Osaka and Hiroshima," I gamely try to explain, "and the town is known for its Kibidango [mochi], the setting of the fable 'Momotaro' [peach boy], its honey sweet white peaches, and grapes bigger than my eyeballs."
It was clear that I lost them at "Okayama".
This is the best I can do in describing where my parents and thus, where I come from.  Okayama is approximately 225 miles west of Osaka along the Seto Inland Sea.  A little over 300 square miles in size, the population is a mere 700,000 [give or take].  A tourist lost in this area would be stared at, even by me, with the one thought running through the local's minds, "What the heck is the gaijin [foreigner] doing here??  Must be lost..."
Personally, the one thing that keeps me coming back to Okayama, aside from all my fond childhood memories, is my family. Kind, funny, and welcoming are the best ways to describe them.  Other families mention how great my family is.  It's true - they bent over backward when we came into town - from Tokyo all the way down to Okayama - "all hands on deck" was the motto.  

My summers in Japan were filled with idyllic days roaming around the countryside, slipping and nearly drowning in rice paddies, and best of all, playing with my cousins while trying my best to communicate in my very broken Japanese in a way that only kids seemed to know how to do.  I watched my youngest nephew take to his second cousins in much the same manner, playing in the playground 50 yards from my Ojiisan's [grandfather] home.  He had no idea what they were saying, they had no idea what he was saying, but somehow they managed to have fun together...
Walking through Shinpon Village, located in Soja City where my mom grew up, I couldn't believe the changes that I saw.  Even, paved roads; beautified paths heavy with hydrangeas and alstromerias; cleaned up streams; and rebuilt retaining walls.  But the biggest change was my Ojiichan's roof that used to beckon me home.  I used to anticipate seeing my Ojiichan's bright blue tiled roof as soon as we entered the valley.  Instead I was devastated by the drab grey tiles that greeted me.  I managed to find some of the roof pieces underneath the house.
This is what I used to see:

I recall my summer of being a young, know it all teen "trapped" in the country.  All I wanted to do was go shopping, be in the city out of the country and the rice fields.  This time, as a much older version of that self, all I wished for was one more day to walk around here:
and to stare at the rice paddies that was almost my undoing until my mom pulled me up and out
Or hang out at the top of the small water fall that we used to fish and play in [there was never that much water when we were growing up...or hydrangeas for that matter]:
Mostly, it would've been nice to just relax in the rock garden that my Ojiichan created that used to be filled with Matsu [Pine trees].  Ojiichan brought these huge rocks down from the mountains when he was over 65 years old.  I once asked him how he brought it down and he slapped his biceps twice and said, "chikara" or "strength".  I looked at him skeptically.  He was a very, very slight man.  He proved his point by reaching over to my unsuspecting cousin, pinching her slowly with his vice-like grip until she started howling in pain.  Thankful that he didn't pinch ME, the granddaughter he only saw a handful of times, I gave him the "A-OK" sign with a nod of acknowledgment.
This is the Japan that I associate most with.  I don't have the same type of city experiences that all the chic travelers to Japan have.  This is where I come from and where I love to come back to. Thanks for visiting with me. 


  1. That was amazing! Thanks for sharing! I wonder if Giada has fond memories like you...

  2. I love this story and as the mom of young women who are biting at the bit for freedom and the ability to pursue anything but what they knew growing up; some encouragement that this too will pass and in looking back will reconnect with their past and treasure it. Seems you sure have!

    Just loved it; thank you for sharing.

  3. Ah Jen, that was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

  4. What an awesome post. My parents are from Korea but I've never been and I imagine what it must have been like for them to grow up there in the country. The very place we often want to run away from is the first place we want to go back to when we've gained some wisdom and life experience to help us gain perspective on family roots.

  5. I second Elise's comment. I get lost staring at the wheat and alfalfa fields going back home, too. And your Ojiichan rocks! Thanks for sharing your heart Jen.


  6. Lovely post Jen. You were blessed by being able to spend part of your childhood there and by being able to go back there now. Lucky you!

  7. Absolutely stunning! Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. Thank you so much for your encouragement! It's nerve wracking just knowing that you'll never do justice to a place that is so small in this world, yet so big in your heart...

  9. My first time to your lovely blog and I so enjoyed reading about you and where you and your family are from. It's always nice to visit family and places you grew up in...they're a big part of you. Thank you for sharing your visit back home.

  10. Jen this is a truly inspired post. Beautifully written from the heart. Thanks so much for the little peek inside your family and upbringing!


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