Updated: Jun 9, 2019
In 2016, I studied abroad in Japan for just shy of four months. I remember thinking it was too long to be away from home, and I was terrified to do it. But it was my dream to go to Japan, and I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip past me.
I was scared getting on the plane and petrified getting off the plane. Everything was so different and foreign to me that I was immediately homesick.
Sometimes I think back to the person I was back then, and I’m thankful for her. She was scared, but she tried. She didn’t speak the language, but that didn’t stop her from asking for help. She felt lonely, but she refused to give in to it. She smiled and nodded through most of it, using context clues and a lot of humming, but man, did she get through it.
Because of her, the girl I was, I am where I am today.
I always tell people that if 2016 Laura could do it, so can you.
I can vividly remember that loneliness and homesickness that over took me the second I was alone after making my way up to the mountains that would become my second home. I sat and I cried, wondering why I would do this to myself. I had never traveled anywhere without family, and I was so close to my home community that the thought of being away for four months tore at the fibers of my being.
I remember crying, wanting nothing more than to hop back onto a plane and go home. But, even then, I knew that it wasn’t an option. I was going to make the most of my time in Japan.
I saw a flyer at the university where I was staying for a talk on the Akita dog, in Japanese and English. I decided to go. I figured I had to do something with my time between classes and that seemed like a good thing to do. I didn’t know much about the Akita dog, besides that it looked cute on the poster. I can still see that little face in circle smiling at the viewer in my mind’s eyes.
I remember sitting in the auditorium two days later, surrounded by people I generally knew from orientation, sad, scared, and homesick. I remember staring at the free folder, washi tape, post-its, and papers given to us and wondering why we had gotten them.
I saw a large Akita dog mascot walking around, waving its paws and one ear at people who stopped to take pictures with it. It was this white blob of a dog mascot and the first mascot I had ever seen in Japan.
At that time, I didn’t know that it was the mascot for Akita Dog Tourism, or even that Akita Dog Tourism was a thing.
But I remember staring at that mascot and thinking it was cute.
By the end of the talk, I found myself thoroughly infatuated with the breed of dog of the prefecture. The people who had presented spoke with such enthusiasm for the breed that it was contagious. They had brought out NoNo, a dog that was a greeter at the Akita Zeordate Art Center. He sat at the edge of the stage and stared directly at his owner. He rarely looked over at the crowd, seemingly disinterested by our presence and utterly absorbed by his owner's talk.
At the end of the talk, we could all meet NoNo and buy some NoNo merch (which of course I did, and I still have to this day).
I remember looking at this fluffy dog, who was rather impartial to people giving him attention or even looking at people, and being mesmerized. There was something special about him and the dignity that he carried in himself that spoke to me.
A friend told me she would take my picture with him, so I crouched down to be at the same height as NoNo. Just as I lowered down, he turned his head and gave my face a thorough sniff. I was the first person he gave any attention to, despite not being the first to pet him, and my friend captured the moment perfectly.
I recall newspaper reporters’ cameras flashing brightly and clicking loudly in that moment as well.
To me, it felt like he was giving me a little bit of a pep talk, and letting me know that it was okay. It was the reprieve from my own internal turmoil that I had needed to get through the homesickness and move on to making the most of my time in Akita.
From that moment on, due largely in part to NoNo, the Akita dog had stolen my heart.
Two -almost three- years later, I’m back in my second home, where the Akita dog lives, finding myself being comforted by them again and again.
When I visited Kakunodate in southern Akita, I met Bukemaro, a popular Akita dog of the town. I also had the pleasure of getting a sniff from him before he promptly decided he wasn’t interested in the new people and wasn’t going to give anymore attention away.
When I went to Odate’s Amekko-Ichi’s festival, I saw many more Akita dogs, a fair amount of them that I followed on social media. I got kisses from a few of them, and sniff or two here and there. Every time that one of them gave me a moment of their time, it was special to me.
Odate City recently opened up a new Akita dog museum where visitors can meet different dogs from around the area. Every time I visit, I feel such joy at meeting a new friend.
Kind of felt like I had been accepted in some way by these wonderful dogs.
The Akita dog holds a very special place in my heart, not just because they are probably the cutest breed of dog in the world (although I may be biased), but because they represent a sense of belonging in a place so far from home.
An Akita is nothing like the shepherds or retrievers that are popular family dogs. The Akita dog is known for bonding with very few people, often only one person, and being strong and willful. They are a type of dog that will choose if it will listen to you, and often is far more interested in doing what it wants. Its size means that it can easily take charge of a situation, but their mellow uninterest in things beyond their family means they care little for jumping into action. This also means they can become stressed if in a situation with too many unfamiliar variables. Despite their aloofness, if you earn the love of an Akita dog, it is said to be something eternal and special.
I guess in some ways, I see myself in the Akita dog. I have always been a little more introverted, had a few close friends over the years, and my mom has often told me that I am a willful person. I, too, become stressed in unfamiliar and unknown environments.
I had felt stress beyond measure those first few days in Akita.
I think that the Akita dog came into my life at a time when I needed it the most. I was reminded gently by this breed of dog that there all kinds of personalities in the world, and that not one is better than any of the others.
I was told, at a time when I had pulled myself away from my home of twenty plus years and felt desperately alone and scared, that I had a place I belonged and that I was not alone.
I just had to be true to who I was and be where I was regardless.
For me, the Akita dog is not just a symbol of Akita Prefecture. It is a symbol of home.