I was 24 years old. I had been all across Europe and through parts of Central and South America. I considered myself pretty well traveled for my age, and very fortunate for having been so. I was a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Navy, stationed on a ship out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and to say I was dissatisfied with life at the time is an understatement. I was coming up on my 2 year mark on the ship, and it was time to pick orders for my next ship. I knew I probably wouldn’t be happy on a ship, regardless of where it was, or who the captain was, so I figured, I might as well go somewhere where I could enjoy my time off from work. Growing up in Virginia Beach since elementary school, it seemed I had really taken in everything I could from the city. All of my friends had moved on to other cities, DC, New York, or even to the West Coast, and the friends that hadn’t, all had serious relationships with kids on the way. I had to get out.
Only problem was, in the Navy, its pretty difficult to work on the East Coast, and get transferred to the West Coast where everyone wants to go. I had been to Jacksonville before and had NO interest in going there. I wasn’t really interested in going to Spain, or even Japan at the time, since everything everyone said about it was “Don’t go there.” I had my heart set on San Diego.
As time went on, I realized just how impossible it would have been to get to San Diego. All of my friends that were in my shoes the year prior, had ALL asked for San Diego, and guess how many got it, not one. I had to get out of Virginia, I absolutely had to, but how? A good friend of mine, Jake Heschlefburg, mentioned that if I put Japan on my list, there was a 95% chance that I would get it. But Japan?…Everyone always complains about getting orders there and their best advice is just go to Cali, avoid Japan like the plague. “You’re only going to be there a maximum of a year and a half, how bad could it really be in that time. Plus you’ve never been to Asia, could be an eye opening experience.” My friend, whom I still go to for advice from the other side of the world, was absolutely right. A year and a half would fly by, and then I could return to the United States and pick back up. So, with that, I put my letter in to the Navy. “Single sailor, want to travel, want to go to Japan.”
It was another three months before I heard anything back, as is normal, and when my Captain told me my results, I was actually somehow still shocked. “Whoah, really? Seriously Japan?…” I had requested it, but had never actually considered what it would be like being told I’m going to Japan. I was leaving behind my family, my friends, my two younger brothers aged 14 and 9 at the time whom I loved very much and felt like they depended on me. “Japan huh…”
I started researching Japan. I didn’t know anything about it besides the basics. Where it was…sushi…anime. In fact, I don’t think I ever really had any Japanese friends. I had plenty of Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, but no Japanese. I started to get pretty nervous. I’d been away from home to Europe plenty of times during my summer breaks from the Naval Academy, but I had always come back home. Even in college, I was only a four hour drive away from home. Anytime I wanted to see my family, I could. Now, I would be on a completely different day, then my family would at home.
The time finally came for me to leave, and that was honestly, one of the hardest plane rides I’ve ever had to ride on. The clash of excitement and regret, of adventure and loneliness completely consumed me. I was, at any given time, struck with gut wrenching homesickness, and the next second would feel the joy of setting out on a journey. I knew this trip was necessary for my development, but man, what a leap. Looking back, although I missed my family and friends often, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.
I arrived in Japan around May of that year. We had just taken the ship from California to Hawaii, and then made the leap from Hawaii to Japan. Standing on the bridge of USS CHANCELLORSVILLE I saw Japan for the first time with my own eyes. As if right out of an old samurai movie, there was a low setting fog that consumed the hills surrounding the port. The signs of the ships, all in what I would come to find out was Kanji or hiragana, the Japanese chatter on the bridge-to-bridge radio…I instantly and completely enchanted.
I would spent the next year in and out on deployment. I wasn’t a big fan of deployment, but I don’t know too many people who are. The time I was fortunate enough to be on land, I spent experiencing and exploring Japan, falling in love with it all over every day. The food, the language, the people. There was so much to do in an island nation. Of course, these times were also met with loneliness. My entire support system was on the other side of the world, and I would have to stay up late or wake up early just to talk to my family. But even with this, I couldn’t shake the deep relationship I was developing with this beautiful country and her people.
I came to learn, rather quickly, how friendly the people were. As a minority in the States, I’ve often battled with overt racism, whether internally or externally. I remember going out for a run one afternoon, and speeding by was a red pickup truck with a pristine Confederate flag waving off the bed of the truck. I heard an insensitive honk followed by a racial profanity and kept running. I didn’t care, I knew my hometown was filled with imperfect human beings. I was 16 or 17 at the time and just remember thinking “Where am I?” But in Japan, you don’t really feel that. Even as a foreigner, although not completely welcomed by all, I never feel a burning hatred towards me. The people are generally just very friendly people, with exceptions of course. Walking into a restaurant, into a store, meeting someone for the first time is always met with wide smiles and warm greetings. The first two are just good customer service, but sometimes even the last one can be a hit or miss back home.
Here’s an example. I had been in Japan for 3 weeks, maybe 4, and I had ventured off base to get some food. Someone had recommended a great sushi restaurant next to a Mos Burger. I still didn’t have a cell phone at the time and I had been walking for 35 minutes, figuratively dying of hunger, trying to find this Mos Burger so I could get this delicious sushi. Nearly giving up, I politely asked an older Japanese woman “Mos Burger arimasu ka? (Is there a Mos Burger?)” She said some crazy Japanese stuff, and, as you’d guess, I spoke no Japanese. I frowned and said “Gomenasai…” In true Old Japanese lady fashion, she held her arm out, palm down, and as if sweeping the air towards her, motioned for me to come and grabbed my arm. She walked me 7 or 8 blocks, to directly in front of the Mos Burger, spoke some more Japanese, and turned back to the way she came. This was the beginning of my deep love for Japan. This actually happened a few times, with people of all ages, going out of their way to help me.
If feeling at home in a place that isn’t your home is not enough to make you love Japan, the food will definitely win you over. From authentic sushi, to ramen, to yakiniku, I have yet to go to a restaurant here and be disappointed. The food is good, and generally cheap, unless you go out of your way to go somewhere expensive.
And of course…..the hikes. I really think you could spend 10 years and never hike all of Japan’s mountains, or even Japan’s 100 mountains. But…here’s to me trying.