Welcome to “Golden Week”: a succession of national holidays that free most of Japan to travel en masse. You must book your tickets months in advance or forget about traveling on a budget. I decided to spend my allotment on Tokyo, aiming to rectify the fourteen days I passed here in mandatory isolation, forbidden from leaving the hotel property let alone poke my nose into a sushi restaurant.
The trip began with an unexpected detour: JET’s Christian society threw open the doors for me to join their weekend retreat in Nagano — with only 24 hours notice. I hastily abbreviated my hotel stay in Tokyo and bought my shinkansen (bullet train) tickets at Tokyo Station for a 2+ hour trek northwest to join them.
Twenty of us gathered for two nights, resting in cabins equipped with wood stoves and kerosene heaters, assembling in the main lodge for meals, worship, prayers and discipleship lessons. We hailed from Australia, the Philippines, and Canada as well as the United States. Some had lived in Japan for years, finding positions beyond their JET contracts. We all shared a hunger for fellowship (particularly in English) and a desire to pursue knowledge of God in faith and hope, despite the pressures and anxieties of life abroad.
A surprise treat: one young man hailed from South Africa! He and his mother (visiting for the summer) indulged me in brushing up on my Afrikaans. He also hosted a braai (not barbecue) for our sunny afternoon repast: fat links of wors (pork sausage) over coals. The retreat organizers then charmed me by unwittingly advancing my streak of s’mores abroad: everywhere I have lived since the Philadelphia program has cobbled together a local version of marshmallow-chocolate cookie sandwiches.
First the John Jay Fellowship set the standard with a traditional take featuring Graham crackers and Hershey squares. During my Peace Corps training at Mpumalanga, we veered off wildly with pink marshmallows and whatever flavor of chocolate the tuck shops offered. Even at Oxford, our Welsh pastor produced a spread with enthusiasm for his neighbors across the sea. Now Japan stepped up: the dark chocolate slabs dwarfed the marshmallows, but our South African guests were duly impressed with the operation.
On our free afternoon, some ladies invited me along to the local onsen, or public bath. Thanks to Japan’s bristling complement of volcanoes, these baths usually draw from mineral hot springs. We cheered the cherry blossom petals drifting on the water as quintessentially Japanese.
After luxuriating in the hot springs, sizzling in the sauna, and testing our toes in the cooling off pool, we strolled along a riverside walkway to buy fresh dairy gelatto. Dangling our feet over the platform benches, we licked our spoons and watched the ducks fight their way upstream.
The retreat ended this morning, with a flurry of good-bye hugs, fervent prayers and well wishes. I dragged myself abroad the train again, struggling to keep from nodding off. Fortunately, all rails lead to Tokyo Station: it was impossible to miss. After an obligatory stop to collect a shelf’s worth of maps and travel guides from the tourist information point, I am ensconced in my sparingly proportioned but generously outfitted abode for the holiday.
The mountain spring weather shocked me — it’s steamy on the islands already — but the week’s forecast promises sunshine for my time in Tokyo.
(My travels are so hopelessly backlogged, after a 10 day trip to the UK in April that stretched to three weeks, that I’ve decided to post mini-updates for this trip — a daily rather than monthly schedule. More to come!)