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Memoir a trip back to healing

Two years teaching in Japan brings growth and a Japanese zither

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published: June 6, 2019, 6:02am
11 Photos
Sarah Coomber, who spent years teaching in Japan, plays the koto, or Japanese zither, at her home near Five Corners. Coomber is the author of a new memoir about her time spent in Japan. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian
Sarah Coomber, who spent years teaching in Japan, plays the koto, or Japanese zither, at her home near Five Corners. Coomber is the author of a new memoir about her time spent in Japan. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Schoolchildren used to stare at Sarah Coomber and gasp. They had no idea what to make of her height and pale skin, her blue eyes and brown hair.

Before long, Coomber didn’t know what to make of herself either. She’d catch a glimpse in a mirror and gasp at that strange-looking person too, she said.

“I was the only foreigner and the only English speaker” in a farming village in Japan, an island nation that’s one of the most homogenous societies on Earth.

It might have been a little different if Coomber had been assigned to teach in a city, but on her second trip to Japan she was placed in Shuho-cho, “an isolated bastion of pragmatic farmers” with few distractions — other than a 6 a.m. wake-up chime that pumped an electronic version of “Edelweiss” loudly through the air.

“`Edelweiss’ would strike every morning at six o’clock for as long as I lived in Shuho-cho, along with the air-raid siren wailing at noon and a piece of classical music tinkling into the drawing dusk at 5 o’clock,” Coomber writes in her charming new memoir, “The Same Moon,” which is both a journey through Japanese culture and a journey toward self-understanding, security and faith. Coomber will read from “The Same Moon,” and sign copies, 2 p.m. Saturday at Vintage Books in Vancouver.

IF YOU GO

What: Sarah Coomber reads from “The Same Moon,” her new memoir. When: 2 p.m. Saturday Where: Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd. Admission: Free. On the web: https://sarahcoomber.com

Coomber grew up in North Dakota and Minnesota, and wanted to flee for a whole year to Germany as a high school exchange student; when her parents nixed that idea, she wound up spending an exchange-student summer in Japan. “It was like a little fling, just getting a little exposure to another culture, that’s all,” she said — but she wound up falling in love with the culture (and a Japanese boy). After she left, memories of Japan became her “happy place.”

So, a few years later, smarting from a divorce and feeling deeply unsure of herself, Coomber applied to go back to Japan and teach English. She wanted to return to her warm, welcoming, multigenerational host family in the small city of Hagi; she wound up stuck in that isolated farming hamlet, Shuho-cho, living in a company dorm and feeling whiplashed by life.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. Neither did the people of Shuho-cho, who stared, fussed and badgered her with questions. But because of that, Coomber was forced to engage with the community in a big way, she said. Every shopping trip or chance encounter became a whole series of in-depth interviews, she said.

Early during her stay, she was informed — not invited, but ordered in the nicest possible way — by her boss’ wife that she was not only going to learn the koto (Japanese zither), she was going to perform in an international festival. In about two weeks. Coomber had never touched a koto, but she was already an accomplished pianist and perfectionist. It was a “nightmare” scenario, she said.

But her teacher gave her a valuable instruction to follow if she got lost or made a mistake: just pose. Coomber did a lot of posing during that first performance; but she also joined a koto club and learned the instrument reasonably well. The koto is designed to resemble a dragon; when The Columbian visited her home in May, Coomber played the classic Japanese cherry blossom tune, “Sakura,” plucking the koto strings with dragon-nail plectra on her right hand while bending and dampening the strings with her left.

Playing the koto and becoming everybody’s English teacher helped Coomber find her place in Shuho-cho — which she only fully realized as she was getting ready to leave after two years. She had developed good friends and a romantic interest; she was involved in people’s lives. “A huge web had started to wrap around me, in the most unlikely place,” she said.

Coomber, who worked as a journalist and currently is communications manager for Educational Service District 112, said “The Same Moon” feels like “a midlife crisis looking back on a quarter-life crisis.” Written and rewritten as she approached 40, the book explores not just Japanese culture but Coomber’s own personal struggle to understand herself, warts and all. One early reader thanked her for including the kind of confessional stuff you usually share with one special friend who’s sworn to secrecy, Coomber said.

That doesn’t mean romantic adventures, it means the embarrassing failures and feelings of despair that we all experience but don’t usually share.

“At some point in our lives, we’re all just flummoxed,” she said. “We don’t know what to do. We can’t always run off to Japan, but we can make a change.” That’s a main theme of her book, she said: “Don’t be afraid. Be open to new possibilities.” Then, she said, cherish your memory of being flummoxed and despairing — and use it “to empathize with people who are stuck in their own spots.”

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