At long last, yet seemingly all too soon, the month-long Yamagata project is over and I am safely back in the UK, still a little jetlagged but otherwise no worse for wear. The final week seemed to go the quickest; I can barely remember the order of events, but I will do my best.
One day we visited the local high school to partake in an exchange similar to when we went to the middle school. After a brief presentation about the history of the school, we got into small groups and the students taught us origami and cat’s cradle. Thankfully this time my sad cranes didn’t make an appearance as instead we were taught how to make a spinning toy out of three pieces of paper. Although such a feat seemed beyond me, I somehow managed to complete it without any mishaps. Cat’s cradle was also fun but challenging – the students couldn’t help but giggle at my attempts but I did (finally) manage to create a broom, a bow and the Tokyo tower. We also got to try calligraphy with the school’s calligraphy club students. It was fun but much more difficult than it looks, what with the precise brush strokes and how my brush kept somehow splitting into two! We got to choose kanji for our names and I chose two that meant ‘cheerful’ and ‘polite’. Some of the other volunteers had more amusing names such as ‘happy sentence’ and ‘arriving storm’! After some practice we got to paint our kanji names onto a fan to keep as a souvenir. It was a lot of fun and the staff and students were all really nice and friendly, and the fan now sits proudly in my room.
We also got to visit a disability faculty. Unlike the previous one, this one had more of a focus on adults with disabilities although there were still a lot of young people there. The aim of the faculty was to help people with disabilities gain valuable work experience working for their printing company in order to help them get jobs. The owner gave us a tour in very good English. He explained that he’d opened the faculty because he understood that accidents can happen at any time and he’d want support if he were ever in such a situation. It was really nice meeting someone with so much empathy and I had a lot of respect for him. We got to take part in a couple of activities including making our own souvenir keychain featuring a miniature version of a special hat used in regional dances in Yamagata. Although it was fiddly, the end product looked beautiful and a couple of the others put theirs straight onto their bags afterwards. Another activity was making some custard cream bread, or cream pan (クリームパン), as the faculty also had a bakery. We got to measure out the bread and pipe on the cream, then fold it and cut it into the traditional shape used for cream pan in Japan. I love baking so this was right up my street and it tasted incredible, too! Of course we raided the bakery afterwards and they even gave us more to take home for free! Their generosity astounded me; it was a lovely place with a great atmosphere and I think the owner should be proud of the legacy he has created.
A few smaller things also happened, such as having fireworks for a second time. The horizontal ones were certainly still terrifying, but being able to sit down with a cold beer and stargaze while the distant bangs went off was a simple, yet nice little treat. We also got to finally visit the apple orchard and pick all the bad apples off the trees. Although they weren’t yet ripe, it was nice to know that we were being helpful and I found it rewarding completing one tree and moving on to the next. As it was an all-day affair, we brought a bento lunch with us and ate it besides a nearby lake while attempting to skip stones and watch the absurdly colourful dragonflies dart around. Another day we also got to cook British food for all the staff and boys at the centre and we chose to cook cottage pie and Welsh cakes. I was manning the Welsh cakes and don’t even know how many I ended up cooking (or eating). Thankfully everything turned out delicious and most of the staff and boys seemed to like it, although some did end up fetching bowls of rice! What made it even more special was that all the boys sat with us for once which was a nice change and we felt more like a part of the community than ever.
Another day of note was the day before we were due to leave. In the morning we did normal house chores but had an interruption when our boss’ wife brought out her house bunny, Malo! We all got to take turns holding and cuddling him and it was a nice little surprise for us. However, the day’s surprises were far from over as in the afternoon we got to visit the famous Mount Zao. It is a volcano which has a large crater lake that is completely filled with beautiful, albeit toxic, blue-green water. We got to go along with the boys from the centre and it was really fun interacting and taking pictures with them while viewing such an incredible sight. I’m just thankful they didn’t make us climb up! It was even nicer when in the evening the boys decided to hang around with us instead of disappearing off to their rooms. We had a great time goofing around with them, taking pictures and making faces and teasing one another, and the atmosphere felt so relaxed and friendly that I didn’t want to leave. It was a really nice evening and makes me wish they’d always stayed around with us in the evenings, but I’m glad I got to experience it even once. That day was definitely one of the best ones and I know I’ll always remember it.
Finally, the last morning came. It was rather hectic as between packing our bags and cleaning our rooms we were trying to write little notes to the boys and staff containing personalised messages, all in secret! Despite the stress, it was worth seeing their faces when we were finally able to give them their notes along with the gifts we’d brought them from our home countries seemingly eons ago. We also got to give them all hugs, some being more eager to than others! But soon the bus was due to come and it was time to go. The staff and boys all followed us outside to wave us off, which made it all the more emotional. As we drove off and waved them all goodbye, I felt as though I was leaving family behind. The centre had begun to feel like home and the boys felt like our friends. I couldn’t help but well up as we travelled away from that little corner of Japan. I’ll never forget any of them, or the memories I have made on this experience.
After the project we spent a few days in Tokyo searching for souvenirs and wandering around the city. It all seems like a big, colourful blur now and it was strange going back after so many weeks in the countryside, especially with all the crowds and the tall buildings with bright neon signs. But soon it was time to go home and we boarded our flights tanned, tired and eager to get the 17 hours’ worth of flying over and done with. On the first plane we were served soba noodles with a big blob of wasabi which me and my friend ate without even thinking – after so long in Japan you’d think a mistake like that would be easily avoided. But other than having a fiery mouth, there were no more problems for us and we arrived safely back in the UK. I was eager to meet my family again and share my experiences, but first I needed a nice long sleep! So, now that it’s over I think it’s safe to say that I have nothing but good things to say about the last few weeks. I learned so much, not only about Japanese culture and farming but also about just how selfless and kind human beings can be. It’s amazing to think that one family can be so quietly influential in how much they help those who don’t normally have a voice and I really hope this project continues well into the future so that other Cardiff students can experience meeting such wonderful people. For those of you who are thinking of doing the project next year, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I have so many great memories and it’s all thanks to having had this opportunity. And so, for the last time, thank you so much for reading this blog and I hope it was insightful into what we got up to during our trip. さようなら!