Personal and travel writing by Breawna Power Eaton

Back home in Japan: The kindness of strangers


Of course, I thought as my car click, click, clicked in response to the turned key. Nobody had been home to drive if for the last three months, so why should it wake up now?

I knew that coming home after Peace Boat would feel like this – anticlimactic. How does anything compare to traveling around the world?

I’d escaped this realization at first, hosting my fellow teachers. The house got a little quieter as they slowly returned home, but Alda saw me off to meet Tom in Singapore. So, I had yet to be in our house alone.

When I returned to Japan from a dreamy week of catching up with my husband, the house screamed of its emptiness as did my schedule. The teaching opportunities I thought I was returning to had fallen through. We had nine months left in Japan,  time that seemed both long and short, time I did not know what to do with, in any meaningful way, at least.

So of course, as if feeling the lack of electricity in my fingertips as I turned the ignition, my car battery died.

Immobile on our driveway, wanting to escape this feeling of being stuck in a rut, I took the train instead to meet a friend for lunch near base. Talking about Peace Boat with her brought back the spirit of optimism that I’d hoped to hang onto when walking off the ship that last time.

As I made my way back home, I noticed a voicemail from Kimi, my Japanese grandma on PB. Just the voice I needed to hear today.

Bre-san, I send you sweet potatoes. They will arrive tomorrow, is about what she said.

Hearing her voice, I was suddenly transported to her house, watching Ryan help her pick sweet potatoes in the back garden, seeing their giddy excitement as the bounty built up in their arms. Again, I felt lucky to have that experience — to spend a weekend in a Japanese home, not as a visiting stranger but as a beloved friend. And yesterday, I spent the afternoon with my Japanese teaching partner Rie and her family, playing with her sons Kaito and Shuto, practicing numbers and colors and animals in English. Two years ago, I never thought I would have these experiences.


As I walked down the canal toward our house, I felt suddenly emboldened to get the car fixed. Not to take the easier, more expensive route of calling the auto coverage through the base to have a tow truck lug it to the mechanic there, but to attempt taking my car in to the shop near my house.

We didn’t move on base for a reason — we wanted to live in Japan. So, that’s exactly what I would do.

I had no idea whether the local mechanic spoke English or not. As back up, I took a video of me trying to start the car, captured the clicking attempts to start. Next I popped the hood (no small feat with my stubborn one) and took photos of the battery and any other important looking stickers full of number codes. I also grabbed the car’s handbooks out of the glove compartment, figuring they couldn’t hurt. Then, with “do you speak English (eigo wo hanashimasu ka?)” prepped on the translator ap on my phone, I started walking down the canal toward the garage.

It’s not going to be open, I thought (almost wished) as I turned the corner, but up ahead, across the train tracks, I could already see a car in the small driveway. I took a deep breath, repeated the Japanese line in my head one more time and walked into the car part filled garage, then sideways between two cars toward a man in a blue jumper, who was sitting near the back.

Konnichiwa! we said, exchanging smiles, his accompanied with a hint of surprise.

Eigo wo hanashimasu ka? I asked.

He laughed and said, No!

Nihongo scoshi, I said, trying to communicate that I could only speak a little Japanese, and even that was an overstatement. Watashi no karuma (my car) wa , I motioned my arms into a big X. Bat-tu-ree-wa, another big X.

I pulled out my phone and showed him my car-won’t-start-video.

We went back and forth, making car noises, imitating different car sounds. He quickly concluded, Bat-tu-ree wa Chane-jee?

Hai, I said and asked how much it cost.

Nana – sen -en.

$70 bucks sounded about right, so I nodded, then realized I had no way of getting the car here, nor did I know to ask for a jump.

Jump-u? I ventured a guess.

Jumpu, he said, nodding. Kyo- he asked.

Yes, today would be great. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening!

We agreed, after drawing some maps and looking at Google maps on my phone,  that he would come to our house an hour later, at 4pm. He arrived ten minutes early and quickly changed the battery in our driveway (after a little trouble with the hood, making me feel even more proud of myself).

I didn’t have the exact amount, so I handed him a 10,000 yen note then asked if I could get an oil change the following day. He said something I didn’t understand but took it that he didn’t know his schedule.

It’s ok, daijobu. I said and thanked him profusely, pointing to his car and then mine, meaning you drove over here, no worries, keep the change. I felt stupid after — should I have used one of the cute little envelopes my students use to pay their lesson fees? I just handed him the money. How uncouth!

He waved and left, but I had a feeling he’d be back. That he wouldn’t take the extra change as a generous tip for his own generosity.

Auto service in your driveway? I couldn’t imagine this ever happening without costing double back home. But Japan is not a tipping society, so I wasn’t surprised when my doorbell rang less than 10 minutes later, as I was about to head over to the shop to make an appointment for an oil change (and give him some chocolate as a “tip” he surely could not refuse – it would be rude to not accept a gift here, I knew that much!). I opened my front door to find his hand held out with my change.

We shared a laugh.

Domo arigatou gozaimasu, I said with a deep bow, and then he was gone. I bent down to grab the chocolate I was going to bring him, but by the time I stepped back on the porch, he was already down the street on his bike. Arigatou gozaimasu, I hollered one last time.

He looked back, waved with one hand and smiled.

I watched him ride away and felt the happiness that lifted my cheeks into a smile dance down my limbs. I beamed at my adorable teal car, now healed. And, I walked back inside. There was nothing anticlimactic about today. I was, after all, back home in Japan.


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