Before I begin my description of the tour, I must write the quite long story behind my journey. Believe me, it was full of what we may call suspense and drama.
I still remember the rainy September day (22nd September, Saturday) in 2007 when I was called to the office of our Vice-Principal. I was in IX then. Some other students were also there. Our Vice-Principal told us to sit down and began talking. He said that as a part of an international exchange programme between India and Japan, students from Japan were coming to India and vice-versa. Then he told us that if we wanted to be a part of this programme we should submit our names to him within two or three days. He said that we must treat the foreign students well and give them a taste of our Indian culture.
But there was one thing he almost didn’t tell us before we left the office. I thought we were supposed to welcome our foreign guests as I had been a part of many such exchange programmes. Naturally, I thought our part was to play the host. Suddenly he said, ‘Do you have a passport?’
And I stood there, awestruck. I wasn’t supposed to be the host. It was the other way round. I was told that the school had chosen me (and also a couple of other students) because of some of my extra-curricular activities. The tentative date of departure from India was December 22, 2007. I had to submit my documents to the school within three days for my nomination. The nomination would then be sent to the concerned government office for further selection.
I remember coming back home with a weird expression on my face. It can’t happen, I thought. It’s too good to be true. But can’t it be true?
The stories of Japan I heard always fascinated me. After coming home I opened my computer and visited many sites where I could get more information about Japan. I thought I was acting foolishly, for it was not yet confirmed that I’d go to Japan. I told my close ones about this but requested them not to tell anyone about it. They were ecstatic. Mind you, they were happier to hear that I was chosen to go abroad than that I was actually going to Japan. I feared that I’d become a laughingstock if I made such an announcement and later told them that it was not happening. I was definitely hopeful but not too happy.
And then, it started raining. I’ve already said that it was a rainy day. The rain continued … and continued … What a fierce rain it was! Many roads in Kolkata were completely waterlogged. And I caught fever. I couldn’t imagine going to school for the next few days. The school remained closed, perhaps. But I was dreading that I would lose this opportunity for bad weather (which has been a pain in the neck for me more often than not). On Tuesday, the rain stopped. But I was unable to go to school and submit my application.
Then, finally, Mother took a leave from her office and went to school with my application. She arrived in my school when I was about to lose this opportunity. The Vice-Principal was going to send the submitted names just the moment she arrived. She was at the right place at the right time. He added one more name to the list and sent it … And the lamp of hope brightened itself once more. But I was unsure of my journey.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of sorts. I had to apply for a new passport. I had to fill out forms and go to another school to submit it. The Puja vacation had started. I can’t imagine what I’d do had the members of my family (Father, Mother, Sister, Granny, Aunt, Uncle and Rohit Uncle, who is as good as family) not stood by me. My teachers also stood by me like a pillar.
The Principal of the school I went to submit the form told me about a possible selection process. I was also told that the date was uncertain. Meanwhile, my passport came. I engaged myself in other activities. I conveniently forgot that the tentative date was December 22 until the very date arrived. On this day, I said to myself, ‘Your chance is gone, baby. You were never meant to be selected. There are better people. Get over it.’
I had already given up. There was no way I could go. During this, I was informed that I had won the National Bal Shree Honour, which would be awarded by the President of India. This news was so overwhelming that I forgot any disappointment I ever had about my Japan journey. I was passing every level of Junior Science Olympiad. I won an interschool quiz contest. I was at the top of the world.
Then came a call again. I was once again summoned to my Vice-Principal’s office. The chance of going to Japan hadn’t really vanished. I had to submit another set of forms. I didn’t feel very hopeful this time. I went to the aforementioned school once again and filled out another set of forms which wanted to know about my achievements and all. Two days after the Joel and Ethan Coen received four Oscars in total for No Country for Old Men, I did this. Then in March, I had to submit some forms again (the Annual Exams were going on then).
Then I received a piece of news which made me incredibly happy. I was selected for the final level of Junior Science Olympiad. The camp was to be held in May for a couple of weeks in Mumbai. It was my first shot at the Olympiads and I got it! I immediately sent back the confirmation letter. I started studying. Even the tickets to and fro Mumbai were booked. There was possibly nothing to stop me from going to attend the camp … or was there?
On the 18th of April in 2008, I got a call from Mother (as discussed here). She told me that she had just got a call from a travel agent. I had to submit my passports and visa forms positively by the following day. I was supposed to report in New Delhi on 11 May.
And then came the biggest dilemma of my life so far. The schedule of the Olympiad overlapped with that of the Japan journey. I had to choose one. Mind you, each was as important as the other in my opinion. But I had to make a choice. Either I had to go to Mumbai where, I was told by the organisers, “very lucky few” get the chance to showcase their talents or I had to go to Japan where I was sent (to represent my country) after being chosen (again, on basis of my previous achievements) by the Government of India. In no way was it an easy choice. Sacrificing any of them meant letting go of a golden opportunity. I thought and thought. I discussed it with my parents. I cursed my fate. But there was little time to think it through. I had to make a quick decision. Of course, you know what choice I made. It was not a bad choice, I told myself but the sacrifice was heartbreaking. Believe me, the sacrifice still gives me pain.
This decision was not driven by the urge to go abroad on government money. I was motivated by the strong connection I felt from my childhood. I guess this decision was stimulated by the Japan travelogue of Rabindranath Tagore, Japan Jatri and by the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. I had always felt a strong affinity towards Japanese culture. What was more, it was a student exchange programme where we could exchange our cultural values and I’d be staying with a family for a whole day to get a taste of their culture. I felt very few students of my age would get this opportunity. I’d probably visit Japan many times in my life, but would I be able to have such an experience? If I were selected from the Olympiad, I’d still go abroad on the government’s money. So wanting to visit foreign country wasn’t what drove my decision. Moreover, I’d still be able to sit for Olympiads in subsequent years. But this chance would never come in my life.
So I made the decision.
The next few days were a complete pandemonium. We had to cancel the tickets to Mumbai and send a notification letter to the organisers. We had to go to New Delhi on the 10th and booked tickets. We purchased many things which would be necessary for my trip. I thought that I’d be served Japanese cuisine in Japan, so bought some snacks in case I was not comfortable with the food offered. I had no idea about the weight limits set by the airline. So I had to pack my bags very carefully. And I had to get an international mobile number. Whenever Father, Mother, Sister or I called any mobile company, the response was more or less the same: Japan is a 3G country. You’ll need a so and so mobile set. You’ll need to deposit so and so amount. If you hadn’t been a subscriber to our company since so and so, this would have been easy. You have to deposit so and so amount. You’ll get the connection after so and so days after so and so verification.
I was really put off at that. Meanwhile, I studied all I could about Japan in those days. We had little time and little could be arranged in time. We didn’t know where we could exchange INR for Yen. One of my parents’ friends got it done and there was ample money for me to shop in Japan to my hearts content.
I thought my rechargeable battery charger wouldn’t work in Japan. So I got a dozen of normal batteries (which would give me nightmares later). But I also got a pair of rechargeables (which would prove a boon for me later).
In such pandemonium I completely forgot to look forward to my trip and anticipate a great experience. I guess that was why May 10 arrived out of nowhere …