Early last week, I was finally added to the email list of MIT interns in Japan last summer, and so I sent out an introduction email. The first person to email me back was Ira Winder, inviting me to an MIT alumni-intern retreat in a rural town called Tane in the Shiga Prefecture. I had no idea what it would entail, but I said yes and went about looking into Shinkansen tickets.
On the trip down to Shiga last Friday, I wound up sitting next to four MIT alums (plus someone’s brother visiting from Spain), eating Shinkansen bento (ekiben), and talking in the fastest English (and Spanish) I’d spoken in a week! All quite the change from working with unpaid master’s students, homemade bento, and speaking English slowly, without adjectives or adverbs.
Travel by Shinkansen, while totemo takai
, is brilliant. Hop on in Tokyo and arrive in Mibara, 266 miles away, in only two hours and 16 minutes. (Google Maps
says the drive takes about five and a half hours.) Granted, this trip cost approximately 14,000円 for a reserved seat… not feasible in California, regardless of exchange rate. The Shinkansen is amazingly precise: trains can be spaced as little as three minutes apart.
We spent a lot of the trip along the coast, seeing islands and green hills. The views of the Enshu-nada, while generally obscured by power lines, were beautiful.
After transferring from the Shinkansen to a local train at Mibara, we arrived in Kawake on the shores of Lake Biwa.
The sky was clear for the first time I’d seen it in a week and the rice fields stretched to the bottoms of hills dark green with trees. No more than two trains an hour rolled through this hamlet—the quiet and intense verdant shades were welcome after a week in busy Tokyo.
Ira was waiting for us at the station, preparing to dole out homestay assignments for the weekend and wax poetic about the town we’d be staying at for the duration of the weekend. I went to high five him at one point, and he missed my hand, so I tried it again, resulting in another miss. “Did you live at tEp
?” “How did you know?” Half-way around the world and I’m still running into folks from pika
‘s “rival” living group at MIT.
My host for the weekend, Matsumoto-san, wasn’t supposed to arrive for a while, so Ira and I sat in the shade at the train station and talked about growing up in rural communities, the declining birthrate in Japan, and finding communities to call home. Dylan, my fellow homestayer at Chez Matsumoto eventually arrived, and we sped off in Matsumoto’s Kei car to the even smaller village of Tane.
The house was in traditional tatami style, with huge windows to the west pouring light into the living room, rice fields visible through the bamboo shutters.
Between glimpses out the window, we were beset upon by three of the Matsuomoto grandchildren: Kazuma (age seven); Riko (six); and Arisa (four). They loved the omiyage
I brought them: bamboo propellers that you spin by hand to launch at the ceiling, walls, windows, and guests. (Itai, itai!
Matsumoto-san eventually rallied her grandchildren and we ate a lovely meal of sashimi, tofu, pickled squash, eggplant with white miso sauce, and more fish. And of course, rice and tea.
The evening entertainment involved Dylan and I playing a drawing game with the three cousins who were pretending to take photos of us and lambasting me for my poor stroke order while writing hiragana.
In the game, each person would scribble for a few seconds on a piece of paper, then pass it to the person opposite them at the table. We’d each turn the received scribble into a drawing with a story.
Arisa created a narrative of how, during a flood caused by a storm, a giant whirlpool was about to suck in four people who were wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas. The people were ultimately sucked into the whirlpool, but their umbrellas and coats remained outside. So sad! Would the story end in drowning? Fortunately, a giant octopus came along and rescued the people, who even recovered their umbrellas. And the sun was shining!
Afterward, the three cousins did what kids do best: goof off, pull hair, and look cute.
More photos here
. Stay tuned for part II, where we meet architecture students from Keio University and MIT, see lotus flowers, visit abandoned houses, and interact with several kinds of squash.