Sometimes, I think that the person I was two and a half years ago is a simply a dream. The summer of that year, I walked along lush forest roads embroidered with wildflowers, sat on the edge of the pier over a shimmering lake, spoke a new language, and wandered among crowds of millions. I loved living in Japan, but with two and a half years of graduate school between me and that summer, it seems more dreamlike all the time.
But then, I remember that while I’ve changed in many ways since then, in the most essential way, I am still that same person. And I’ve discovered that a souvenir can truly be a poignant reminder of who you are when you’re not traveling. Now I’ve never really been the beachy snowglobe or keychain type. Part of this is self-defense—I just don’t know what to do with most knick-knacks. They accumulate on my desk until I’m outnumbered and forced to surrender, so I try to avoid that scenario. My favorite kind of souvenir is something that can be worn, though I’ve found that my acquisitions so far are mainly for special occasions. After all, while a real Scottish kilt is something wonderful to behold, it’s not something to wear to a night out at the movies (well, I suppose it would depend on the movie). When I was in Japan, I chose a yukata, a light summer kimono, to bring home. I also brought back a small box filled with my first passion, paper. My sister and I found this box sitting in a stationery store across the street from the community center where we took Japanese lessons. We had ventured over with a few friends to ogle and exclaim quietly over the beautiful papers, pens, and other wonderful items that the Japanese have made for making writing anything from a reminder sticky note to scrollwork an act of art. My sister held the box up and asked me if I was up to the challenge. It was a senbazuru set, 1000 pieces of paper to fold into 1000 cranes.
Many people know the story. An old Japanese legend tells the story that if a person folds a thousand cranes, she will be granted a single wish. There are many variations, of course, but the heart of the story is the same: if you can complete the task, then something will change in your life. My sister and I bought that box in Fujiyoshida and packed it into our belongings when we left for graduate school. A thousand cranes. It seemed like it would take years to finish. Challenge accepted!
We began folding them in our tiny apartment when we had a few spare minutes. We’d fold them while we listened to a radio drama or watch a movie, when we were exhausted after a long week, when we needed to put our thoughts in order. I folded them when I was happy that I had gotten to talk to a friend long-absent on the phone. I folded them after hard days teaching college freshmen. I folded them to console and celebrate. Seasons passed, and then one day, we finished the last one, made of golden foil. We’d made it.
If you’ve never seen what a thousand cranes look like, let me tell you that it is an absolutely glorious mess of paper.
When I started folding these cranes, I didn’t know any of the things that would happen in the time that it took me to finish. I moved to a new place, wonderful friends came into my life, I broke through the boundaries of where I thought my writing ability ended. I lost a lot of sleep, studied harder than I thought was physically possible, became a college professor, and fell deeper in love with words. I achieved another dream, to study at the University of Oxford, and wrote miles of text in essays, poems, stories, letters home, and post-its on my mirror. Old friends would become closer, the world would become bigger and smaller.
While a crane didn’t appear to grant my wish, I know the story is true at its core. I folded a thousand cranes, and my life has changed. But these paper wishes remind me that I am still the same person at heart who picked up that box, a person who would see this project, a whim at first, through to the end. Perhaps deep down I knew that it would be one of the best souvenirs I’ve ever brought back. They remind me of what I hoped for then and what I hope for now, and how in many ways, I keep those wishes closer.
My dad asked me once why I bothered to fold a thousand of these, being particularly stuck on what one does with them after they’re finished. The legend of the thousand cranes is ancient, but it has become famous because of a young Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki. Exposed as an infant to the radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, she became ill as a young girl and began folding cranes, inspired by the story. In some versions of the story, she finished the cranes, in others, she died before she could fold all of them and her classmates finished the rest. Today, the cranes have become a symbol of peace, and millions of them, sent from dozens of countries, are hung near memorials and commemorative parks as wishes and prayers for world peace. In a world that is constantly broken by tragedy, it is amazing that such a simple thing, a paper crane, can become such an elegant expression of compassion and solidarity. My sister and I wanted to photograph them well to preserve their memory—our souvenir—before returning them to the land they came from.
My sister wrote a wonderful post in tandem with mine. Read it here: One Thousand