On My Way to School [JAPAN]

Pietro Boccalatte
We closed the door, walked past our little red car and onto a quiet street. Next to me was my grandma who had come all the way from Italy to stay with us for a month. My life––as any teenager’s––was very busy so walking to school was one of the only ways that I could spend time with my granny. We had left with ample time because we both enjoyed walking and because I was sure that Granny would want to stop along the way. Luckily the weather was excellent. The sky was a deep blue and budding plum blossoms lined our path. The shining sun promised good weather even though it was still February.
After only ten minutes of walking, we came across a small shrine, hidden in between two grey buildings. Grandma was immediately captivated by the bright colors and the flow of people. “Can we please go in?” asked my grandma. “Sure!” We ascended the steps of the shrine until we were parallel with the 5th floor of the buildings next to us. The stairs opened to a wider, unpaved area with stepping stones. Above us was a bright red torii gate with traditional Shide paper garlands hanging from it. Two large posts supporting two curved beams was what signified the entrance to the shrine. It’s a custom not to walk directly through the Torii gate but off to the side a bit. This is because it is believed that only gods walk through the centre.
We walked along the stepping stones until we reached the prayer building. “Wow! look at that. It’s so intricate and colourful,” she said in astonishment. “That’s the main altar called Kamidana. People toss a coin into the coin box and ring the bell. They then bow and start praying.”
“Right now, there are a bunch of school kids praying before school starts. They pray for luck with exams, for help understanding things or even to say sorry if they have forgotten their homework.” I explained. “Well, it looks like that kid has forgotten to do a bunch of homework judging by how much he’s praying,” joked Granny. “And what’s that over there?” She asked, pointing at an assortment of brightly coloured fabric amulets. “Those are Omamori. Most temples sell them, and they are traditional Japanese good luck charms. You choose which one to buy depending on what you need luck for.” I explained. “If you want, we can go even higher, but you would need to take your shoes off because Japanese people believe that it preserves the sanctity of the shrine.” I offered. “No thanks! I’m old and my feet hurt!” she said. “We need to start leaving anyway, otherwise I’ll be late for school.”
We descended the shrine steps and went back onto the road. We hadn’t walked one hundred metres when “What's that building?” asked Granny. “That's called a Koban. You can find them very frequently and they are at the service of the neighbourhood. They come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are on the first floor of residential buildings; others are standalone constructions. Some look like happy faces, others like rhinos or ships. Everybody sees what they want in them. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that there are always two or three policemen inside who are ready to give you directions in a city with no street names. Who are ready to find mothers their lost children and are even ready to find old grannies their home keys. You just need an address, and they will ship you back home!” I answered. “I may be old, but I can still remember where I left my keys!” cried Granny in indignation. “Although I do admit that I wouldn't mind having a Koban close to my house,” she conceded.
We continued our walk. All around us were Japanese workers with their briefcases and ties heading to work, schoolchildren in identical uniforms as well as grandparents enjoying a walk outdoors. At one point I said, “I’m thirsty.” It was a hot day especially for February and my throat felt very dry. “Let's go and find ourselves a nice cafe where we can order some water,” suggested Granny. “There's better!” “What do you mean?” “Look at that sign. That's a Konbini. Have you forgotten your lunch? You can buy an onigiri. Have you forgotten your umbrella? You can buy them of all sizes and types. Have you forgotten your socks? You can buy those too!” “If you've missed the last train, you can always go to a konbini, buy a toothbrush, a clean shirt and sleep in the dorms!” “That's convenient!” “And that's not even the best part.” “There's more!?” “The best part is that it’s open for 24 hours 7 days a week!” “Well, that's another thing that I wouldn’t mind having in Italy,” she said.
We entered the Konbini and Granny was dazzled by the shiny floors, bright lights and the vast assortment to choose from. There was everything from A to Z: from pork buns to newspapers, from ice cream to hot meals. I quickly bought a bottle of water and we left for school.
It was 8:15 when we arrived at the school gate, and I had to say goodbye to Grandma. “See you later,” I said as I hugged her safe in the knowledge that I would be walking back home with her. “Now go before you’re late, otherwise your mom will kill me!” she said, ushering me inside. I entered the campus about to do everything that any normal teenager would do at school, except my school was in the middle of the world’s largest city. A city with luxurious malls next to decrepit sheet metal houses. A city with robot cafes and traditional bonsai gardens. My city: Tokyo.

When Pietro was only five years old, he set foot in Japan and has since made it his home for nearly a decade. He came to Japan without knowing a word of English but can now speak it fluently. Apart from English Pietro can also speak Italian, French and a bit of Japanese. He enjoys writing in many different genres and styles but usually writes short stories and essays. He likes to swim and rock climb as well as hiking in the mountains. He would one day love to climb the Seven Summits.

"Tori Gate" by chooyutshing is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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