I had a lot of expectations and plans for my time in Japan, but I never imagined that I’d find myself in a tiny house in an abandoned village in Fukushima, singing karaoke with an elderly man that I had just met. He didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Japanese. But when we finished singing “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, he gave me a huge smile and a thumbs-up and said “Good”. I said “sugoi”, which I think means “great!” or “amazing!”. It was one of the few Japanese words I could remember.
I had been planning and dreaming about this trip for almost a year. I had a meticulous schedule and budget for every day that I would be there. I studied flashcards of Japanese survival phrases. I even made a map of all the places I would go. The trip was part of an international journalism class that I had with 15 other journalism students and two professors. Our plan was to write and report stories about people that were affected by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Each of us were assigned a story to focus on. Mine would be about how fishermen, the ocean, and Fukushima’s fishing economy were affected. I spent most of my time reporting in a fishing village in Fukushima and had the chance to interview several fishermen about their experience.
It was was one of the most educational experiences of my life. I learned more in one month than I could have learned in a semester-long lecture class. I learned the most, though, when things went wrong and I had to veer off of the original plan. My maps and flashcards frequently failed me. Whenever I got lost in Japan, without the group or a translator, something magic would always happen. I would find myself laughing with strangers as we tried to use wild hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate with each other. I once got lost and ended up being physically pulled into a temple by a woman who wanted to show me how to perform a Buddhist prayer. Another time, I was dragged into a group of drunken Japanese college students who wanted to light fireworks with me to celebrate the beginning of summer.
That night was one of the strangest and most memorable nights of my life. At the last minute I volunteered to write a story about a man who leads “darkness tours” of a small village in rural Fukushima that was abandoned after the nuclear disaster. I went to the village with two other students. Before we even talked to the man, I had the story all mapped out in my head. It would be about this village, frozen in time after people fled after nuclear disaster and about how this man found a way to profit on that by offering scary tours.
When we got there, though, the experience was much different. For the tour, he just took us to his friends’ houses. Over the years since the disaster, he became close with the few remaining people in the village. When I asked him why he was taking us to see his friends as part of a “darkness tour”, he confessed that he just loves his village. He hoped that by offering tours, he could convince outsiders that Fukushima was not a nuclear wasteland. He wanted us to see that it was actually a beautiful forest and some friendly people still lived there. I didn’t have a plan for this kind of story.
He drove us to a tiny house on top of a hill, where his friend greeted us at the door. He explained to us that his friend’s name was Hiroshi and he was a great singer. Hiroshi had a karaoke stage and microphone set up in his living room. He sang us a beautiful song in Japanese and and then asked us (via a Google Translate) if we wanted to sing with him. We shrugged and agreed.
While we were in the middle of singing the chorus in this man’s tiny living room, I asked myself “What am I doing here? This wasn’t part of the plan. How am I going to explain this to my professor? How am I going to write a story about this?”. I started to laugh and sing even louder because the situation was so bizarre. I forced myself to accept that the story I had planned to write wasn’t going to work out. After the song was over, we made a traditional Japanese dinner with the men we met in the village. We asked each other questions all night via Google translate. We laughed and ate a lot. It was wonderful. I learned last night that it is okay to let yourself stray from your plans and expectations.