On days when I have a few moments to daydream, I think about many of the great experiences I have had over the last few years.
One of my most nostalgic memories is when I was first introduced to Japanese enka music. Described as "the folk music of Japan," enka became a popular musical art form after World War II.
The people of post-war Japan faced many difficulties, as food was scarce and much of Japan was leveled by American firebombing raids. The slow, haunting ballads of enka accurately described the feelings of loss and struggle felt by many people of the time.
Many of the themes of enka are complex and often deal with perseverance, enduring hardship, loneliness, and even suicide. Thus, the genre is mostly unappreciated by younger generations of Japanese.
Listening to enka is like stepping back into a much simpler time. However, the same could be said about the two years I spent living in Japan.
The small town of Takahata, tucked away in the mountains of northern Japan, is hundreds of miles away from the electric madness of Tokyo. With few modern attractions, the town can be aptly described as a sleepy, drinking community with many small farms.
Having only a one-speed bicycle as my sole source of transportation for several months, I got to learn about my new surroundings at a much slower pace. On my bicycle, I explored every square inch of my new home away from everything.
One day, my travels took me to a long bicycle path that snaked its way through the entire town. Once an old railway line, the path cut through the old parts of town and up into the mountains, ending at Lake Biruzawa.
Having no idea how long it would take me to get to the lake, or what I would find there, I took two bottles of water and headed off into the unknown.
The way there was beautiful and scary at the same time. Along the path, I came across varieties of spiders and winged insects, all new to me. As the town crept farther into the distance and civilization became more sparse, I became more committed to finding the end of the path.
It was only 10 kilometers, but riding 10 km up a mountain in 100 degree heat and 90 percent humidity took its toll. As afternoon turned into sunset, I made my way closer to what seemed like a body of water.
As I got closer to the lake, I began to hear a faint song in the distance. Indescribable at first, the crooning melody became more moving and powerful the closer I came to its source.
When I got to the top of the mountain, the once-hidden lake opened up to me. Overlooking the lake was a small fishing pier. A loudspeaker was broadcasting the strange, new music over the lake.
Mesmerized, I journeyed to the small pier to further investigate. It was there -- over a bowl of bear ramen (yes, ramen noodles with bear meat) and sifting through a collection of the pier keeper's CDs -- that I discovered the joyful introspection that is enka music.
That's why I was so surprised to find out recently that an African American, who moved to Japan only a few years ago, has started making a career as an enka singer.
Jerome White, Jr., known in Japan as "Jero," graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003 and moved to Japan shortly after. Being familiar with enka through his Japanese grandmother, White finished as a runner-up in a popular Japanese karaoke competition.
His popularity in the contest led recruiters from JVC Music in Japan to scout him and the rest is history. With his first CD scheduled to premier later this month, White is being described by Japanese newspapers as "the first black enka singer in history."
Before there was "Jero," however, there was a "Joel," who fell in love with an old Japanese tradition. Perhaps, one day, I will give Jero a run for his money.