Of The Past
May 29th, 2010. I sat in the air, three thousand feet above the northernmost island of Japan, descending slowly. Looking out the window, it was obvious even from this distance that Hokkaido was unlike the rest of Japan. Having come from the relative flatness and tradition of Kyoto, this place was both exceptionally mountainous and starkly Western, appearance-wise. It had been a fun ride in Honshu, and now it had felt like I’d returned home at last.
Hokkaido, and more specifically Sapporo, had been the perfect synthesis of my American heritage and my new-found love for Japan. The language, arguably one of my favorite aspects of Japan, was naturally ever-present, but if signs and voices were removed, the place would look no different from a traditional American city. Having relatively few earthquakes, Hokkaido was able to easily employ architectural styles and materials that were distinctly Western. Most notably, cities are awash with brick buildings—a common sight in my homeland but impossible to find in mainland Japan. That’s not without cause: bricks are about the worst material when an earthquake strikes. For the same reason, should an earthquake hit my hometown of Boston, the entire city would be more-or-less leveled.
Hokkaido owes a great deal of its American influences to their foreign hero, William Smith Clark. Born in Massachusetts, Clark became the third president of an agricultural college that would later become the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The aim of the college was to bring scientific practices and techniques to the farming community, as the founders believed modern innovation was passing over the lower class agrarians. Though expending boundless effort in bringing the college to greatness, low enrollment and indifference from the farmers of Massachusetts caused a great deal of criticism. When Japan took notice however, they were impressed with his ideals. The Meiji government hired a swath of foreigners in order to modernize Japan, and Clark was given the job of starting an agricultural college in Sapporo as well as eventually helping Hokkaido’s development. Though he stayed in Japan a mere eight months, his influence on Hokkaido cannot be underestimated. Coming from America, the place feels genuinely American. His phrase, “Boys, be ambitious!” is well known throughout Japan.
Great example, by the way, of the importance of commas! “Boys, be ambitious!” is a little different from the assuming, “Boys be ambitious!” which is actually very often written. For a country so hung up on grammar, they seem to spend so little time proof-reading.
Regardless, the feeling in Hokkaido was wonderful in that warm summer. The temperature was perfect, neither too hot nor too cold. Compared with the mainland, humidity was reasonable and the rainy season easily avoided. Combined with the general feeling of familiarity, the place was a paradise. Our short trip was in its entirety slightly longer than a month, and half of the time would be in Sapporo. I was beyond glad.
Those twenty-one days would hold some of my fondest memories in my short life.
Of The Present
February 9th, 2014. The Snow Festival, held yearly in Sapporo, was an opportunity to return to my paradise. Nearly four years had passed, and the season was different, but the city I thought I knew remained much the same. The popular landmarks, the layout of the streets, the mountains nearby; all seemingly frozen in ice, preserved flawlessly.
Like my time prior, I came here with a group of other foreigners, though this group was very different from the last. Nobody was willing to make the trek back to the area I had called “home” for the better part of a month, so I decided to go alone. It was better that way, I think. Where they might see unassuming streets, I would see something more. I wouldn’t want to bore them. The time alone would do me well too, especially after spending so much time with others.
I bundled up, doing my best to get ready for the coming cold. As I left our hostel, I had a general idea of where to go, but nothing concrete. My cellphone was slowly dying, so I used the map sparingly. I consider my internal geographic compass pretty good, even if my moral compass can falter.
Before long, I came to one of the bridges that connected the tall structures of the center to the more residential outskirts. I couldn’t help but smile. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an entirely happy smile. I was off-balance. Was this bridge the one we would’ve crossed to get to the center? My memory was hazy. Deep snow enveloped the bank below, closing my beloved park from all but the most ambitious cross-country skiers. It used to be so full of life, I thought. Now it stood still, the only movement coming from the river below. I continued on.
Every building I passed was vaguely familiar. Maybe I just wanted to see something I knew. I’m sure these were the same buildings, but I hadn’t committed them to memory. When I came across the park, it was like I had stumbled into an entirely new area of familiarity.
June, 2010. The trip had been full of memories already, but Hokkaido was where the friendships were cemented. I became close to someone I had started my Japanese journey with in January 2009. While my money was running out, he bought beer for the both of us. I hadn’t been a big beer fan before that, but ever since, I’ve switched sides. My Japanese-English conversation partner was there too, as well as her friend. The four of us became close. Closer, probably, than any of us knew what to do with.
That park became our home base. My friend would buy us all drinks and we’d sit on this bench. Our conversations were stilted half-Japanese, half-English monstrosities, but at the time, they were beautiful too. They were conversations that could have only come about because of our studies. Four individuals, connected in spite of the distance between the lands of our birth, in spite of the languages of our people.
It was a time to share our cultures. Each of us represented both sides of the spectrum. I was shy, yearning to be the assertive American I was assumed to be. My friend was wild, but had an introspective side that showed through. My conversation partner was a young girl who smoked, dressed rebelliously, and proved to be something of an otaku. Her friend was the societal polar-opposite: someone who aimed to be pretty and dimwitted on the surface. Of course, we were all wearing some kind of mask. Together, our combination was both odd and natural.
Memories of that time seem like something out of high school. My friend finding a long-abandoned bike and trying to throw it as far as he could. The girls getting drunk and occasionally running to the nearby bathroom to expel the poison. There was a lot of throwing, of all kinds, in retrospect.
And at the end of the day, we sat on that bench and talked about our futures. None of us knew what would happen next. Against my prior ambition to spend my adulthood in my hometown, I decided then I would someday return to Japan for a significant length of time. My friend debated not going back to America for his final year of school and instead settling down here. Our Japanese friends had vague ideas of their futures as well, of becoming English teachers and airline attendants. All of our dreams, to some degree, have come true, but we didn’t know it back then. We were all hopelessly unsure.
More than any other sight, that park symbolized everything Japan meant to me. And now it was covered in a thick layer of white.
I made my way across the snow, treading new paths. The bench was concealed, so there would be no sitting without a lot of digging. I let it rest. The bike was probably gone, but who could be sure? It was a constant during our time there, never moving. I wanted to believe it too remained, somewhere under the crystal blanket.
The Nature of Memories
We’d all like to believe our memories are perfect recollections of the past, like video tapes of first birthdays. But they get changed too. VHSs, when watched enough, get white streaks and tears. The sound morphs. Their quality wanes. Give it long enough, and it’s nearly unwatchable. With movies we could purchase a new one, but those home movies have no replacement.
My memories of the park, and indeed of my previous time in Japan, are mostly fuzzy, with patches of cleanliness. I’ve watched them countless times. Now, even the parts that I think are clean are in fact bastardizations of their former selves. Each person is wearing clothes and faces that I’ve constructed from pictures. My conversation partner wears glasses, as her Facebook profile picture shows. I’m not sure she even wore those same glasses at the time, but that’s how I see her. The memories are imperfect, and because of that, the feelings are the same. They’ve adapted. I respond to different stimuli now, and their image has changed to retain the feeling. Like a translation of a book, the meaning and feeling is intended to be the same, but the language changes. Often, some things are lost, and I wonder how important those things are.
I don’t know if I took a picture of the park as it was in 2010. I must have, somewhere, but I haven’t seen it recently. My image of the park is purely from my brain. I take that and overlay it on my surroundings. This recent image of the park changes the one from my memory. They’ve fused to make something new.
I leave the park and find the buildings that I called home. These hit me less hard. They too are covered in snow. I dare not enter any of them, instead taking satisfaction in thinking I know what they are. My homestay was near here, though I couldn’t pinpoint the exact house I had stayed at. I walk to a nearby shopping center to have the traditional lunch I had during that time, a plain bowl of white rice. It’s funny, to be back here, and I laugh at the absurdity of eating that same dish that became a staple because I had no money. Memories make us do stupid things.
Of The Future
As I left the area, I felt at peace. I’m not sure I’ll return here, even if I do come back. Even so, the possibility is not ruled out. That beer-buying, bike-throwing friend from the bench and another one from the same trip now live in Japan as I do, and if they propose a return journey to Sapporo, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I’m sure returning there with those friends would spark new memories and better feelings.
However, I think I’m fine not returning to that park in the future without company. I’ve had my share of memories for now.
But it could be that in another month I’ll feel differently about this trip as well.