My Second Home

This is a bittersweet post – a FINAL essay on YARN! But it’s a fitting finale, by teen writer Kinu Blackwelder – exactly the kind of young reader and aspiring writer YARN set out to spotlight. 


By Kinu Blackwelder


Image courtesy of paolobarzman (

Sacramento and Tokyo are on opposite ends of the earth, but hospitals look the same no matter where you are. I look into my grandfather’s face as he lays on his hospital bed. I take his hand. His eyes flutter open to meet mine. He whispers, “Thank you, Kinu. Thank you for being here.” But I wish I wasn’t here.

Today is Liz’s thirteenth birthday. Liz and I go to school together and she is one of my best friends. She’ll have a huge water slide at her party, an outdoor buffet, a movie, and a sleepover. Everyone will be there, except me. I’m in Tokyo, a million miles away from Sacramento.

There were times when Japan was fun. I remember my mom and I came to visit when I was in second grade. She enrolled me in the Heiwa No Mori School, certain it would be a good for me to connect with kids my age and improve my Japanese language skills. The school was green and white and filled with old wooden desks, a chalkboard, and cubbies in the back of each room.   And it was fun, all the curiosity swirling around me, the questions, the instant friends. But the novelty has worn off. Since that time, I’ve come to Tokyo every year, except when the Tohoku Tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and it was too dangerous to visit.

Baba, my grandmother, is sitting in the hospital chair and closing her eyes. She’s usually very lively and talkative, but today she looks tired. I sit next to her and I wonder if the nurses think my grandparents and I are related. The truth is, we look different. I’m half Japanese, half white.

This morning, the first after we after we arrived in Tokyo, I woke up to see that my mom had already folded her futon mattress and set it next to mine.   My parents and Baba are downstairs, I told myself. But when I walked down the steep stairs, I found a note informing me to come straight to the hospital. I felt a wave of annoyance creep up inside me. It wasn’t that late in the morning. I didn’t understand why she would leave without me. I ate a warm slice of toast, then my mom called. “Hurry up Kinu. We’re only a few blocks away.” Her voice crackled over the phone. I threw on a clean shirt and headed out of the house.

When I stepped outside, it was hot. I pushed forward, knowing the hospital was only a few blocks away. I made it to Waseda Street and noticed that my surroundings had changed from old rusty houses, tiny vegetable stands, and parks with creaking metal Jungle Gyms, to modern glass structures. The old and the new, all jumbled together. That is Japan. The hospital, a big reddish-orange building, was just ahead. My steps to the doors were slow and heavy because I knew that for the next few hours I’d be in slow motion. The seconds would crawl by painfully. But there was hope: just as I stepped into the elevator, I got a text from Miu. Miu is my age, born and raised in Tokyo. She also happens to be the daughter of my mom’s former high school friend, which is how I came to meet her. She asked if I wanted to go to Harajuku with her for the day. This seemed perfect, because I’d be able to buy a birthday gift for Liz.

When I stepped into the hospital room, I was greeted by my parents, my grandparents, and a handful of nurses with smiles. I saw Jiji laying in a small bed with metal railings and tubes running everywhere. Guest chairs surrounded him. There was a large window and a few lonely paintings of plain flowers. I smiled at my grandpa, then sat down in one of the empty chairs.

Now the attention turns to me. Everyone asks if I’m doing well in school, and if I’m still playing volleyball. When the attention of my parents turns back to my grandpa, I pull out my phone and tell Miu that I’m ready to leave. My mom gives me a look of disappointment, but after a moment, she says: “I want you back here by five so you can say goodnight to Jiji.” I skip over to tell everyone where I’m going, and rush out the door.

At Broadway Mall, there is a small cluster of stores near the Nakano Train Station, and I see Miu sitting in a cleanly ironed white sun dress. She stands and waves her hands, hurrying me so that we won’t miss the next train to Harajuku. We share a short but meaningful hug.

“How do you survive this summer heat?” I ask, when we break apart.

“I stay inside,” she answers with a laugh. We pass through the ticket gate and she looks down and sighs, “Kinu, I’m really sorry about your grandfather. I know this must be hard for you and your family.” I smile back to hide my shame. Did I say goodbye to Jiji? I can’t remember.

Image courtesy of Pristine*Belle (

On the the train to Harajuku, I tell Miu about my friends in Sacramento. I confess that I didn’t want to come to Japan because of Liz’s birthday party. We arrive at Kitty Land, and I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of cute stuffies and the oddly dressed people – twenty-year-old girls wearing vibrant pink, blue,and yellow eyeshadow with frilly dresses and big pink bows that make them look like dolls. According to Miu, the Harajuku area is known for the young girls who dress like human versions of Hello Kitty. I listen, but I’m focused on the stuffies sitting on every shelf.   “Look at this adorable one,” I say. Miu suggests a coffee shop nearby. It is there, after my second cup of green tea, that I realize it is four-thirty in the afternoon, too late to say goodnight to my grandfather. My heart skips a beat. I know my mother will be disappionted in me for being selfish by not making time to see Jiji.

That night, I sprawl out on the thin futon mattress which lays on the bamboo tatami floor of my grandparent’s house. Sylvie, my best friend in Sacramento, once told me that if you get a splinter from bamboo, it will grow into a full-sized bamboo plant. It isn’t true, of course, but when I stand to look out the window, I step carefully so as not to get a splinter, just in case she’s right. I also make sure not to touch the wall; the brown plaster will crumble if I rub it too hard. When I reach the window with no bamboo growing out of me, I sit down on the floor and rest my chin on the low framed window. If I look hard enough, I can see Mt. Fuji. When I’m sad or want to be alone, I come up here. The view of buildings all clumped together with Mt. Fuji in the distance is comforting. They’re beautiful. Lights twinkle like stars. The city looks alive. I cannot see the orange hospital, but I know my grandpa is lying there alone, and I feel guilty for not making it back in time.   I sigh when my mom calls for dinner. But when I reach the bottom of the staircase, I know what I need to do tomorrow when I see Jiji.

I carefully pull back the green curtain separating Jiji from the hallway, where the nurses bustle back and forth. I sit down in the guest chair next to his bed, just as I did yesterday. But I have no intention of leaving. I take his hand, and look at him for a moment. Our eyes meet and I know he understands I’m sorry, but I tell him anyway. When I finish, he nods and smiles. Not the sad one I saw yesterday before I left, but the smile I know him for, bright and happy. Then, I pull out my phone to show Jiji pictures of my friends, because I realize he doesn’t know them at all. I introduce my best friend, Sylvie, and her twin. Then I introduce Liz. I tell him about the birthday party. And then it’s time to leave. Jiji sighs and grips my hand one last time. In the elevator, I sigh with relief. I have apologized to Jiji.

The morning that we leave Japan, I sit in my room to pack my bags. A week ago, I was counting the days in anticipation of rushing back to Sacramento, but now I wish I could stay longer. I shove my last t-shirt in my suitcase and drag it down the stairs.

My father and I leave earlier than my mother on a bus to the airport. I think about the birthday party, but not in the bitter way I did last week. It’s not that I’m happy I missed it; I’m just happy that I came. So is my family. Liz will understand; she always does. And guess what? She’ll be fourteen next year and I’ll be able to attend.   But for now, Liz will have to be happy with Smikko Gurashi, a tiny, white, fluffy bear with pink ears from Harajuku. I’m glad I was able to get Liz her birthday present from the place I call my second home.


Kinu Blackwelder is a freshman at Rio Americano high school in Sacramento, California. She decided to write this essay after her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, and she had to miss school and her friend’s birthday party to visit him in Tokyo.


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One Comments Post a Comment
  1. Nancy Blackwelder says:

    That is a beautiful touching story. Thank you for sharing a moment of your life where you came away with new incite into what is important in the moment.

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