Featured photo: The last time I was in Japan, I was 18 years old, my sister, 14.

If you’re reading this on Wednesday, I might already be on a 15-hour flight to Tokyo.

When we land on Thursday, it’ll be my first time in Japan in 12 years. I was 18 years old the last time, my sister just 14. We had gone back during the summer like we usually did when we were kids with our mom to guide us through the airport, the trains, her hometown.

We stayed with my grandparents in the childhood home where my mom grew up, sleeping in two twin beds that were pushed together to make room for all three of us as we slept side by side.

My grandparents’ home was in Niigata, a coastal city right in the middle of the country, known for its sprawling tambo, or rice fields. My dad, who is from Kobe (like the beef, or the Bryant), liked to tease my mom because she’s from Niigata, saying that it was a small town compared to the likes of Kobe, but in reality, the city is larger than Greensboro and Winston-Salem combined.

As kids, we would go back to Japan almost every other summer and spend weeks there getting tan, shopping in the local malls, going to the aquarium. Our grandma, whom we called A-chan, would make us home-cooked meals at night and Western-style breakfasts with thick-cut toast, eggs and fruit in the mornings.

Their house was a traditional build with hardwood floors on the first floor that gave way to tatami mats in the living room and bedrooms. They had sliding shoji doors and a small patio that overlooked a beautiful, carefully tended garden that had a small koi pond.

It was one of my favorite places in the world.

That house is gone now.

In 2019, A-chan passed away suddenly. And just this past summer, G-chan followed.

My G-chan and A-chan with my cousins. I’m the lump dressed like a cow. My sister would be born three years later.

After A-chan passed a few years back, my aunt, uncle and my cousin demolished the old house that my grandparents lived in and built a new home on site for them all to live in together. That’s where we’ll stop this time when we land in Niigata.

It’s strange going back to a country in which the family members I associated with it so stongly now are gone. But maybe that’s okay because this time around, I’m bringing new family.

This trip will be Sam’s first time in Japan. He’s taken on the culture already so much; it’s a huge part of the reason why I love him. He’s taken Japanese language classes, he watches shows in Japanese and cooks Japanese meals for us at home.

My sister Shiori and her boyfriend David are joining us on the trip too. In the middle of our trip we’ll rendezvous with my dad in Osaka who’ll be visiting childhood friends in Kobe. My mom, who visited Japan over the summer, will be staying home.

It’ll be my sister and I’s first time navigating the country without our parents, which is an intimidating prospect. We grew up speaking the language at home, but neither of us can read the characters all that well.

Plus, there’s a certain Americanness that’s seeped into us over the years that I believe native Japanese folks will be able to detect. It’s the way we talk, the way we smile and probably, the way our skin is much tanner.

Even so, this trip, this return to the country of my youth, this voyage back to my roots, is one I’ve been thinking about since the last time I left. When Sam and I got married in 2021, we had planned to go then, but the pandemic shifted our timeline. So 12 years later, here we are.

My sister and I are not the same kids we were the last time we went back. We’re smarter, less naive, we have less family, and the country is, of course, different too.

But we’re hoping — I’m hoping — that when we land, the air, the streets, the sounds will welcome us back with open arms and say, “okaeri.”

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