I'm in Japan!
So right now I'm in Hiroshima on the first leg of a 2 week vacation with my entire family, rollin' 15 people deep through the motherland.
Yesterday we went to my grandpa's hometown of Saka (坂町) a town 20 minutes outside Hiroshima which is where he and my grandma met.
I hadn't been back to Saka since 2005 when I was 16 years old. At that time, I didn't speak any Japanese and really had no appreciation for the experience or the people there. I remember feeling so disconnected from my family, specifically from my grandpa's relatives who graciously opened their home to us, fed us, and held a huge party to welcome our arrival to their town.
That feeling of total lack of understanding filled me with embarrassment and determination, which subsequently led me to study 4 years of Japanese language and live in Japan for 6 months during college. I told myself that next time we all came to Saka together, I'd do my grandpa proud by speaking Japanese with our relatives and really getting to know them.
Sadly, my grandpa passed away 2 years ago before we all got a chance to come back together. But looking at the faces of his family and feeling their love as they once again opened their home to us, fed us, and held a huge party in our honor made me feel as though my grandpa was still there and that we had all done him proud by returning to the place where he was from. We spent the whole day honoring his memory.
Ohaka-mairi is the super important Japanese ritual of going back to your family's headstones (ohaka), cleaning them, and leaving flowers to honor and pay respect to your ancestors. This is something my family does whenever we're in Saka.
We spent the rest of day eating and talking with my grandpa’s nieces and were greeted by a warm reception dinner hosted by both my grandparents’ families that night in a restaurant next to Hiroshima Bay.
At that dinner we were introduced to every single person in attendance. There were over 30 people there—relatives, their spouses, and family friends who all knew my grandparents when they were young. When everyone introduced themselves, they explained how they were related to us—something that has never happened before this trip. I met my grandma’s cousins, my grandpa’s nieces and nephews, and the mayor of Saka, who always visits my house when he tours Los Angeles with a group of middle school kids every four years or so.
Watching my grandpa’s nephew, Susumu, as he MC’d the party gave me a new understanding of my grandpa and his family. My grandpa was always the kind of man who welcomed anyone and everyone into his home. He always took pleasure in his house being the central hub where everyone would gather. Our big Shogatsu (New Year’s) party every year always had (and still has) at least 3 or 4 new faces of plus ones who sheepishly attended as a date or a friend, but left as family because of my grandfather’s warm heart, delicious food, and his uncanny ability to always spot an empty glass.
Susumu's earnest spirit for us all to interact, even though there was a bit of a language barrier for most of the other people in our party, reminded me so much of my grandpa. He’s also a spitting image of my grandpa, albeit about 6 inches taller. He gave a really heartfelt toast that went a little something like this:
“Welcome everyone. In attendance today, we have this group of Americans who have returned to their hometown, a place their grandfather loved. Even though we all don’t speak the same language, I don’t want that to prevent you from enjoying yourselves. Eat, drink, talk and exchange stories with those around you. We are honored to have you here. Welcome home."
The word Susumu used for hometown was "furusato" which evokes more of an ethos than the usual word you would use when asking where someone is from ("shushin"). Furusato, as I have always understood it, means more than just hometown, it sort of means "where your heart is." The use of the word and sentiment behind it filled me with happiness knowing that there is a place in another country where I am always welcome, where I have don't just have relatives-- but family who want to know me, and who I still want to know more about.