I’m not sure it’s really hit me yet that I’m in Japan. I know that the language barrier, the myriad ramen shops, and the sprawling Tokyo subway lines should have clued me in by now, but the last five days have been a blur. At this point it’s too early to tell if I’m waking up at 5:30am every morning because I’m still jet-lagged and my body has no idea what time it is, or if the squawking ravens outside and the sun streaming through my open window are just better than any alarm clock. I’m not sure what I expected out of Japan. I’m not sure I even had expectations, just an overwhelming sense of hurtling head-on into the unknown. From the moment I set foot in the customs line at Narita Airport, surprises were around every corner. Five minutes after queuing up in the cattle chute to go through customs, before I even had a stamp in my passport, an elderly man fell, face-first and stiff-as-a-board, onto the floor, bleeding and groaning not four feet in front of me. We bystanders were swiftly herded to a different line so he could receive medical attention, but he was conscious and sitting up the last I saw him. Welcome to Japan. Customs quickly morphed into money-changing and baggage collecting, during which time I began to feel a little like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: I was most certainly not in Kansas (er, Philadelphia) anymore. The rest of the day is little more than a blur of bus rides, unpacking, and the struggle to keep my eyes open until a reasonable hour in the evening. It wasn’t until the next day, when I had my wits about me, that I began to really notice things.
Naturally, Japan is a very different place than the United States and it has a very different, unique, and wonderful culture. It can also be a bit jarring. There are the little things, like the fact that we had fingerprints taken at customs and that people wear medical masks in public. A lot. As someone who isn’t wildly familiar with the nuances of modern Japanese culture, I can’t tell if people wear masks to protect themselves from foreign germs or air pollution, or if they wear the masks to keep their germs from others in the event of illness. Regardless, the masks soon fade into the mundane background of everyday life, becoming as ordinary as any other accessory. While the language barrier is a struggle, it’s a challenge I look forward to tackling, or at least beginning to tackle, in Japanese I. The atmosphere of Tokyo, and (as far as I can tell), Japanese life in general, is by far the biggest difference between the US and life here. Chants of “USA! USA!” fade into the serene and considerate silence of the metro as commuters from all walks of life wend their way through the vast rail system. Walking home from 7/11, I am given looks of shock and indignation. My crime: eating on the go, something we Americans do without thinking. The streets are trash-free and everything is either combustible or recyclable, everyone from toddlers to wizened grannies rides a bicycle, and everywhere you go, people are accommodating and friendly even if the only words in common are “arigatou godzaimasu.” This health-conscious, considerate, community-oriented society is oddly juxtaposed against a haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants and bars, where no matter how “family friendly,” someone lights up. Drugs, even marijuana, are taboo, but hordes of club-goers stagger half-drunk to the 5:30am metro after wild nights of partying harder than even the bro-iest of frat bros. But they make it work. Intense efficiency balances raucous weekends and questionably healthy livers and lungs. Partying may be important, but family and respect clearly come first.
Serene, ancient shrines fill daily with tourists and salarymen (businessmen) alike, all seeking a moment of peace before re-entering the smoke-filled concrete jungle. Somehow this city has managed to hurtle, full-speed-ahead, into the 21st Century without losing its ancient self to a void of iPhones and bullet trains. I’m not sure I can rightfully say that I’ve even scratched the surface of Tokyo yet, but I look forward to the next two months and all they will bring. Though I will never be Japanese, I hope I can learn to sit down and enjoy my meals, keep my family close, and be mindful of others without losing sight of who I am. Just as long as I don’t have to smoke in restaurants.