It was September 1 of 1981 that I remember stepping off a plane at Narita Airport in Tokyo. I arrived with three other young people, all of us training to be short-term missionaries and teachers, set to go (eventually) to various places in Japan. I arrived with three pieces of luggage, new wine-colored Samsonite soft-side luggage, quite a fine purchase for my family at that time. I had also sent ahead a trunk.
A missionary couple from nearby Mitaka met us at the airport and helped us navigate the maze of customs and find out way to our Tokyo home at Hanegi-cho. They arrived back the next day to give us lessons in reading train and subway maps, in navigating our neighborhood, letting us know when our first day of language school would be.
We found out where to get groceries, how to order noodles or rice in the restaurants, how to change money. We located the public baths. We were told that the first thing to do in the event of an earthquake: turn off the gas. We learned to use ohashi (chopsticks). We were assigned to area churches, and got to know the parish members. We went to a sumo match, took the train down to Kyoto, found the huge Kinokuniya bookstore (five stories high!) and the statue of the loyal dog at Shibuya station.
We took Japanese conversation classes every morning, where we practiced making mistakes. I remember once, after having experienced a very slight earthquake, being in class and learning a sentence construction, "I hope that...." So, I made the sentence, "I hope that there is not a big earthquake while I am in Japan."
The teacher smiled and replied, "But it is all right after you're gone, then?"
My sentence construction was awkward, but I realized the self-centered nature of my sentiment right away. It is the human temptation, I suppose, to consider everything only from our own perspective.
So today I am watching the news, seeing images of the country and the people I learned to love so well so many years ago. I have wished to return many times, because it has become a faded memory for me -- walking the narrow streets, buying skewered meat from vendors, learning Japanese from the children, walking to church with two young women whose names I have now forgotten.
I am praying for you, Japan.