“Why didn’t you tell me you had a story in The Democrat?” my dad asked over the phone as I stood in my childhood bedroom.
“Right, I forgot to mention that,” I said. “I didn’t know when it was coming out. Is it in the paper?”
A smile spread across my face. I had submitted a piece to my local paper about my recent trip to Japan. One small town we had visited had felt like the Japanese twin of my hometown. Although the air in Indiana felt like 17 degrees below zero and made me cough when I breathed, it would be worth it if I could be in Indiana when the story came out.
It felt right to be there.
“Yeah, it’s out,” my dad said. “I only found out because my buddy told me. I read it. It’s a good story.”
I cheered inside and asked him to bring me one of the two copies he had picked up. I was published.
Check out the story below (or here, which includes pictures):
I never expected to feel transported to my hometown of Nashville, Indiana, in the middle of the Japanese Alps. The early November train ride to Takayama displayed trees dabbed with maroon and burnt orange. The view brought up memories of rolling my Honda through Brown County State Park as golden leaves snowed down around me. And yet, I was 6,500 miles away.
The train carrying me and my new husband, Joe, passed over the wide Hida River that reminded me of blue Gushers — and admittedly was a bit more attractive than Salt Creek. Joe and I had decided to take a three-week trip to Asia for our honeymoon. First stop: Japan.
We had spent the first several days in bustling Tokyo, but the countryside was more our style. Deep down, we were both provincial people; Joe had also grown up in a small town.
We needed some breathing room.
We now live in Washington, D.C., decidedly not a small town. But we plan to move somewhere quieter soon. In the meantime, I enjoy bragging to people in D.C. that I grew up in the woods in the only hilly part of Indiana. I use a white lie to reassure them that it is worth a visit.
After we departed the train and found our hotel, we settled into a restorative breakfast in a Hobnob-esque joint. Two older ladies who had long since cleared their plates chatted at a nearby table. A mother and daughter working side-by-side fed us eggs, waffles, tea and coffee. Although the four of us had communicated mostly through charades, the mother asked us where we were from. After becoming very excited when we said, “Washington, D.C.,” she pulled out a world atlas, asking us to point to our city. She then opened their guest book for us to sign. I smiled as the mother read aloud while I wrote, “Thank you for the great food. It was really nice to meet you.”
Outside, the air smelled like earth and wet stone, and contained a slight chill — exactly like I remembered fall in Brown County. And the number of tourists could have rivaled Nashville’s. People bundled in puffy coats took turns posing for pictures on the bridge overlooking the canal, a tree resembling Big Bird standing tall in the background. Visitors waited in line to buy dumplings and matcha soft serve, like Nashville’s tourists line up to devour a scoop of pumpkin ice cream from Fearrin’s or a hunk of fudge from Schwab’s. A mother hopped around, trying to convince her Japanese girl in a stroller to smile for the camera, which eventually worked.
The isolated location in the mountains seems to have left Takayama to develop its own traditions, its own quirks, similar to Nashville in its wooded surrounding. Everyone walked more slowly here than they had in Tokyo. It felt like a place we should stroll. As we ambled along the canal, I noticed tourists picking up colorful leaves to take home. I didn’t see anyone selling leaves in baggies, however — I guess that has yet to catch on.
Artisans’ handmade goods, paintings and printed photographs were displayed in squat shops constructed of dark wood. The shops were more squared-off than those in Nashville but had a similar appeal, a historical feel.
“It smells old,” Joe said as we peered into a Buddhist shrine in the center of Takayama.
We searched for objects handcrafted from wood, which the Japanese are famous for. An upstairs room in one of the shops containing dining tables with the original knots worked into the design and smooth ergonomic chairs blew us away. Having grown up around the leatherworkers, the glassblowers and the quilters of Indiana, I didn’t realize until I was older how rare these skills are. Now, I try to stock up every time I come across something made by hand. Even though I pined for a Japanese table, we came away with four dainty wooden teaspoons. We had only packed one large backpack each, so our souvenirs needed to be light.
No matter how far away I travel, my heart is in Brown County. It is my original frame of reference, my constant comparison. While driving through the hills of Tuscany, I said, “É comé Indiana,” which meant, “It’s like Indiana.” After hopping off a local bus in the middle of Benin in West Africa, the smiling faces and the thick forest reminded me of my old stomping ground. In Frederick, Maryland, I was immediately drawn to its charm and wanted to pack up our apartment and move there the next day. And now Japan.
This comparison is a blessing and a curse. How will I ever find a new home base that’s good enough?
As we were leaving the center of Takayama to head back to our hotel, I bent down to pick up a cherry-red Japanese maple leaf. It tucked neatly into a page in my journal. I was a tourist, after all. Might as well embrace it.
The full article plus a picture gallery can be found on the website of The Brown County Democrat.
Until next time,