When I first came to Japan as a university English teacher in 1993, the hydrangea were in full bloom and I was 29 years old. Four years later, in 1997, I met my best friend here when we both started working for the same company at the exact same time. Both still relatively new to Japan, we bonded quickly over the strange customs, challenges and fathomless possibilities presented to us each day.
Since we both worked full time, we met every Sunday morning over coffee, often at a cafe where we chortled, gesticulated and expressed outright wonder as we struggled to understand Japan. We didn’t care what others thought — we were playful, untamed, carefree.
When I met her, I had just recentered my life by moving to Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea where I could satisfy a longing to live closer to nature: Where I could watch the tide whisper in under a full moon, taste the dew on the morning glories and swim in briny waters with swaying seagrass tickling my toes.
During that first year on the island, an abandoned kitten came upon me when I was running in the mountains. Imploring me to pick her up, she rested in my palm like a fragile, brilliant white goose egg. When I showed her to my best friend, she was smitten. It was just a normal cat, of course, but she told everyone it was the most elegant jewel in the whole world — because it was mine. That’s just how she was.
My friend and I shared many of the same passions: the environment, sustainability and traditional Japanese culture, to name a few. She visited me often, and in our little island paradise we bathed in a sea of pink sunsets and danced in the shimmering summer air to appease the warrior spirits of the Battle of the Heike from 800 years ago.
When the autumn winds came, we wandered the ancient pilgrimage route while picking persimmons and memorized the Heart Sutra. In winter, her charm alone coaxed invitations into the warm island houses of Buddhist priests, shamans and folk dancers.
Time trudged on, I bought my island house and planted iris. She took on more work and stayed later each night at the company. We still met once a week, but eventually switched to Saturdays. When my parents came to visit me in Japan, they thought my friend was terrific, and returned home satisfied I was succeeding in this country with such wonderful support. It was true that she helped me get through the growing pains of this culture, just by being there.
When the internet moved life online, we did too, no longer meeting at a cafe for coffee. Instead, we caught up once a week as time permitted since meeting online gave us more freedom, less structure.
My friend was sophisticated, charming and more popular than I ever was, but she shared her vast cohort of admirers and many journeyed out to this remote, misty, plum-blossomed island in the Inland Sea she talked so much about. Some even became my life-long friends.
But as time rolls on, people mature and, inevitably, change. I married and her job made even more demands on her time. Japan was in a deep recession and she took a pay cut. We kept our chins up.
A decade later, my parents had passed away and hers separated after a long marriage. Her father took a new wife and things were never quite the same for her. So many adjustments to a new “parent.” I offered to help but was at a loss of what I could actually do for her. We occasionally took different views, had petty arguments, but tried not to allow a wedge to come between us.
About five years ago we had slipped to meeting just twice a month, on Mondays, and our relationship started showing real signs of weakness. We both knew something wasn’t quite right, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. We seldom cracked jokes anymore; in fact, we argued.
Still, she accompanied me to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018 and we took four journeys together along the Kumano Kodo from 2014 to 2017.
When I took a trip to Europe earlier this year with my husband, I sent her dispatches, just as I always had, starting with my first major solo trip on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in 1998, then again when I muddled through a stint in Hokkaido in 2007, and during two extended sailing voyages over the high seas in 2004 and 2012.
So when I came back from my European trip, it was a comfort to know she was still here waiting for me, the way she always had.
Last year in June, my precious jewel of a kitty passed away. For 22 years I had buried my nose in her fur when I was sad, and the pain of parting with my feline for good was so acute, I couldn’t even share my loss with my best friend. I cradled the sweet old cat (mere bones!) and, amid a pouring spring rain, returned her to the mountain where she had first found me. For the rest of the rainy season, while the hydrangeas turned from green to pastel pink, pale blue and back to green again, I imagined the rain soaking down through the soil staining that beautiful white coat.
But I still had my best friend. We continued to meet once a month, and it felt somewhat stable.
I’d been so dependent on her for so long. She mentored me through my 30s, 40s and now into my mid-50s. Because of her, I felt accepted and valued. It was a rare friendship and we knew it. Was it too late to renew that spark?
Then came COVID-19 and our worlds turned upside down. My friend could only meet me once every two months. When we did catch up, our viewpoints diverged, and we fell into spats. We made up though, before hopelessly quarreling again. The stress of diminishing finances among a world pandemic magnified our woes.
Where to go from here? I wondered, and it was not a new thought. Is such struggle normal? If I let her go, would I ever find another soulmate like her? In truth, I had started feeling estranged a long time ago, and I think she did too. Finally, I accepted that we had just grown apart.
Already, the cicadas are in full cry, but the last time I saw her was May 11.
I’ve withheld her name until now because if you regularly read my column, you already know who she is. I’ve written about her exactly 1,034 times, in essays that total 1 million words. She’s been in my life for 23 years and it’s so hard to let her go. But I know it’s time. She knows it, too. Farewell, Japan Lite.
A lot happens in 23 years but, in the end, time is itself an evanescence.
I have not regrets, but still I weep. And the Inland Sea tide rises.
Special thanks to the editors and staff at The Japan Times, and, of course, the readers for supporting me and Japan Lite for 23 years.
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