Chapter 1: Chasing the Cherry Blossoms
“How do we get to Nagasaki? On local trains, please.” I point to the phrase written in my notebook and smile at the train station attendant.
Her eyebrows crowd together and she blinks confused, thinking that perhaps there is a mistake. Guilt pricked me. I hardly spoke any Japanese and the woman may have thought I’d meant Nagoya Station, not Nagasaki, which was over 500 miles away. Or maybe I meant Shinkansen—the superfast Bullet train—not the snail-like local trains. When I continue smiling and pointing, she gives a short bow and drags out the JR Timetable Book, four inches thick and detailing track changes, arrivals, and departure times for every line within the complex transport system.
Winter was making its retreat. High clouds skimmed through blue sky. Springtime in Japan is a season of change and cherry blossoms. Once the cold weather edges away, Japanese prepare to celebrate hanami, an unofficial celebration for spring’s return. Trees burst with white and pink flowers called sakura or cherry blossoms. Parks become blanketed in delicate bouquets of flowers and the normally etiquette- and propriety-driven populace let loose.
At the time, Neil and I were between teaching contracts while living and teaching in Japan. With weeks of free time, we plotted our hanami itinerary: Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Himeji, and back home to Nagoya. We challenged ourselves to see all these places, mingle with locals, eat great Japanese food and make it back home with minimal damage to our bank accounts.
The patient train station worker gave us a detailed itinerary of trains, tracks, and departure times. Five minutes later, we stood on Track 2 for the 12:38 train. Even in our rural town called Kozoji, signs are written in Japanese and English. Schedules are clearly posted and marked platforms show where doors will open.
On local trains, we had a slow ride with dozens of stops in vacant villages along the Japanese countryside. On the sleepy journey, we jumped from one track to another for transfers, hoisting our packs high on our shoulders. We sprinted up stairwells while the announcements rang in Japanese and English regarding the next train coming. During long stretches on the train, we’d set our alarm and nap before repeating the routine at the next junction.
Chapter 2: Overseas Launch and Living in Japan