Goodbyes in Japan are serious business. Like a formal ritual, it is important that goodbyes are given the proper amount of time, care, pomp, and fanfare. The whole process took about a month from when it began, in the form of parties and ceremonies and gift-giving and remarks that I would be missed - "samishiiiiiii" (literally, "loneliness") was intoned over and over by co-workers, students and people I barely knew.
My first farewell event turned out to be one of my most special and cherished experiences of this wonderful and warm aspect of Japanese culture. For the past year and a half, I've spent almost every Friday night at a shed out in the rice fields practicing taiko, the art of traditional Japanese drumming. This has been one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to join the group. Myojin Daiko is made up of mostly elementary school kids, their moms, and three of us foreign girls. When they found out that Nikki and I were leaving, they insisted on throwing a party for us, one which was elaborately and carefully planned over several weeks. All we knew was that two of the teenagers in our group, Rina and Tasuku, were in charge of planning the whole thing - it was their special project.
When we arrived at the banquet hall that evening, I was surprised to see that nearly all of the children, mothers, and the rest of their families were in attendance. I hadn't felt that we had been such a big part of the group, but we were special enough to warrant a large gathering for them to all have a chance to say goodbye to us. Rina and Tasuku opened the night with a special performance, joined "spontaneously" by Masashi, one of the instructors. The grade five and six kids in the group read a speech to us, which Rina had cleverly translated into English. Nikki and I gave speeches ourselves, my first of many Japanese speeches in the weeks to come. Finally, our group played the piece we had been working on for most of the past year, and when it came time for an encore, all the kids and moms came up and we played some of the more traditional festival pieces.
During a particularly upbeat number, one of the little boys started dancing around at the front. A group of children gathered, and soon they were jumping everywhere. Everyone in the crowd got into it, and suddenly I noticed that even the banquet hall staff had joined in - one of the servers was banging away on the drums himself, quite skilfully I might add, tuxedo and all.
Food and drink was in abundance. At one point, Masashi made an announcement that Katie and Nikki should drink lots, so the kids were supposed to go to us and top up our beverages. A moment later, all of the children, from four years old to twelve, were lined up around us, awkwardly clutching beer bottles, filling our glasses to the brim before we even had time to sip what had just been poured for us. All the while offering words of thanks and goodbye. That's an experience I can't imagine having anywhere other than Japan.
The kids in the group are adorable. At some points during the meal, I really wanted nothing more than to put down my food and drink and run around the hall and play with them, making faces and silly noises as we so often did during breaks on Friday nights. The kids were all over the place that night. Every now and then I even spotted a fluttering of tablecloth and a little face peeking out from underneath.
Gifts were given - photos! flowers! drums! more than I had room for in my suitcase! - and that night wasn't the end of it. The following week Masashi and Yumi had a huge framed photo of our group to give me, and on our last day in Yokote, Yumi met us once more to give us t-shirts emblazoned with our group's name on the front. Gift-giving knows no bounds in Japan! Eventually, the evening wrapped up and the kids went home, but several of the adults moved on to the after-party - the nijikai. We spent another hour over food and drinks chatting in Japanese (with bits of English) about our home countries, Japanese festivals, and local Akita dialect. The whole event made me appreciate my taiko experience even more; I wish I could have had this kind of awareness before I was leaving, while I still had time left to enjoy more lessons with them. Although I felt like we hadn't made much of a impression on the group as a whole, their warm and thoughtful remembrance of us was enough to leave a definite impression on me.