I left Carina early this morning, eager for a solitary walk north along the Spanish side of the river. After only a few minutes I had left the village and was on the old goat track. It’s late August and the land is parched brown and yellow and in places unrecognisable where the usual tall grasses have died back revealing gullies and stone walls and ruins I never knew existed. The scent of dried grass filled the air and swept me back on a wave of reminiscence to my first few days in Japan and the unmistakable smell of tatami.
I was 22-years old when I moved to Japan to work as an assistant English teacher on the JET programme. I had never been outside Europe before, and I had never experienced such extreme summer heat. My first three days in Japan were spent in Tokyo at a JET orientation, together with 1,500 new JETs from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland. Despite being in the heart of Tokyo I had little contact with anyone or anything Japanese. The thirty-five storey hotel where we stayed, and where the orientation was held, could have been anywhere in the world, but for the Japanese hotel staff. I shared a room with another Irish woman, whose uncle was the parish priest in my home town, and my days were spent surrounded by young English speaking people not too dissimilar to me. JETs in their second and third years on the programme advised us on the best places to go out at night and we danced in night-clubs frequented by Tokyo’s foreigners.
On the fourth morning I rose early, delirious with jet-lag and lack of sleep, my senses overwhelmed by all the new experiences. I was nervous as hell about how the day would unfold. I boarded a plane that took me to Fukuoka, in the southwest of Japan. At the airport I was greeted by a welcoming committee of six people, all of them Japanese with the exception of the one other Irish JET living in Fukuoka – Siobhan Keenan from Co. Offaly. My welcoming committee waved Irish flags and Takayama-san, who had been in touch with me in the weeks leading up to my arrival, waved a sign adorned with shamrocks that read, in Irish, ‘Céad mile fáilte Marty’.
Takayama-san, who drove the tiny Toyota van that we all piled into, was the only one of the Japanese contingent who spoke English. I spoke not a single word of Japanese. After lunch in a Fukuoka restaurant, where I ate with chopsticks for the first time, while seated on the floor for the first time, Siobhan, the Irish woman returned to her office at the city board of education. I was left alone with my Japanese welcoming committee for the half-hour drive to the small town of Sue-machi, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be my home for the next three years.
I was exhausted, overheated and overwhelmed and, when I was eventually dropped off at my new apartment, I barely looked around the place before I dropped down on the tatami mats in my living room and fell fast asleep. My apartment was brand new, recently completed and I was its first occupant. The tatami – those rice-straw covered mats that cover the floors of Japanese homes and by which the size of a room is measured – was new, still green, and smelling strongly of straw.
I woke up four hours later, as darkness was falling, with the right side of my face branded with tatami lines. I’d neglected to open a window before I lay down, so the room was stifling, and the tatami smell almost made me gag. But like eating udon and tofu and umeboshi, and drinking beer with meals, I quickly grew to love the smell of tatami as a uniquely wonderful aspect of Japanese life.
Shortly before I left Japan three years later I bought a small piece of tatami to use as a pin board. I would sniff it frequently, savouring the memories of Japan it elicited. And walking along the goat track along a riverbank in Andalucia this morning, the combination of the parched dried grass and the already hot air once again filled my senses with the memory of my first days in Japan and my first encounter with tatami.