I’ve had four “companions” at various points during the times I’ve spent on Oshika in the past six years or so. I don’t mean people who’ve joined me for the odd day, but people who’ve spent at least a week alongside me here, living, eating, sleeping, and working just like I do. None of them spoke any Japanese, and only one had any experience of Japanese culture, and that experience was very limited. They were all entirely dependent on me during their time here.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something about being here that strips away anything you might be on the outside, and reveals who you truly are on the inside. You can’t rely on the distractions of modern life — television, Facebook, instant messaging, online shopping — and spend a lot time in your own head, especially when you are surrounded by conversations of which you cannot understand a word. Instead you are forced to be at one and at peace with yourself, to change your focus to listening and watching instead of talking, to try to understand through looking at people’s expressions and feeling people’s emotions, rather than processing words. Being comfortable not being directly involved in anything going on, but happy to watch and learn something, maybe about others, but also about yourself.
I know I have learned so much about myself through my times on Oshika, and continue to do so. And I also learned so much about my four companions, and saw each of them in a new light, which gave me either a new respect for them, or made me lose any I once had.
I’ve written before about Sophie, the English woman who asked if she could volunteer with me, and given my observations of a lot of people who had come here to volunteer before her, I was reluctant to but agreed that she could come for a few days to see how she worked out. She ended up staying for weeks and epitomised everything that, to me anyway, volunteering is about.
Then there was my niece, to whom I gave a trip to Japan for her eighteenth birthday. This young woman, who had never so much as taken a coach on her own outside of her hometown, travelled alone across the world to help out in this remote little peninsula, and spend some time with her auntie. Entirely out of her comfort zone, she took everything in her stride and I was so proud to have her here.
The third was, let’s say, “just somebody that I used to know,” as the song goes. And it was on Oshika when I realised that I never knew them at all, and not only that, but they didn’t even know who they were. Their behaviour here left me ashamed and embarrassed, but at the same time it was an enlightening experience and I was grateful to Oshika for showing me someone’s true nature.
And my most recent companion surprised me by fitting in so well. And left me wondering if there isn’t a bit of the Japanese spirit in him somewhere. His shy, quiet, reserved nature suited here, but he was happy to give anything a try when asked, even if it meant being out of his comfort zone. I noticed little things, like organising the shoes in the genkan to make it easier for people to put them on upon leaving, which to me, are big things. He was very aware of not doing anything that might be culturally inappropriate, and happy to follow my lead. Whereas the Japanese part of me has come from years of calling this country home and taking on board so many of the customs, he seemed to be a natural. (And he looked really good in a yukata.)
I think it takes a very secure person to be comfortable here. It takes a sensitive soul, who genuinely looks to put the needs of others above their own. It takes someone who is always on the lookout for somehow making another person or other people more comfortable. It takes someone who understands the value of community spirit, and appreciates being a part of that community, if only for a short time. Someone who understands that the kindness offered to them is not because they are special, but because their hosts are.