When I got to Tokyo, I was homesick before the jetlag even wore off, and I was both horrified and confused. I’d dreamed of this trip for years, much longer than I’d been studying Japanese culture or language. My initial dazed attempts at communication with the people at the shops in the suburb we were staying in on the way in from Narita had gone well. There was nothing wrong. But for a few days, I couldn’t eat much, and when I did, all I craved was the familiar, even passing up chains like Mos Burger or Yoshinoya for McDonald’s. And even that tasted different. When I look back, it was all likely stress – I put a fair amount on myself.
I was the one who spoke (barely comprehensible) Japanese and could read the subway signs, so I felt like communication was wholly up to me. I’d studied the culture and though I knew it was impossible, I hoped to be unobtrusive, to not be a “tourist.” To be different than other travellers, somehow. The size of the city and mass of people were isolating, despite being with a friend.
The photo at the top is from the first day I was starting to feel all right again and excited to be in Japan. It’s from Asakusa, at the Senso-ji, the first Buddhist temple I’d visited. I’d read that around the temple, they sold a deep-fried bean cake, so I was all over that. When I went up to the counter to grab one for my friend and I, the guy said to me: “Hai, oneesan?” Not a big thing, just a little thing. “Big sister,” as he might say to any Japanese woman of the same age. I must have smiled. I ordered – hopefully correctly – and went off with my beancakes, triumphant. Corner turned. Trip on an upswing. In Asakusa, it seems like everyone’s a tourist anyway.
Every person I tried to speak to in Japan was incredibly kind and patient, even when they didn’t understand – and when they did, they often encouraged me to keep learning the language, even to the point of telling me I sounded like a “local.” (Which was a nice thought, but not so much.) They struck up conversations with me even when it was apparent my ability to ‘converse’ was limited. They seemed more impressed with my efforts than I was. Some people have a hard time letting go of their expectations of a country – I had to let go of my expectations for myself while I was in that country. I expected myself to be partially Japanese, and I certainly am not that, nor do I have anywhere near the fluency. I had to learn to be okay with sucking, and be okay with essentially being a tourist. And the people who helped me with that were in that mass of millions that so overwhelmed me when I first plunged into the crowds at Shinjuku Station, due to simple kindnesses and a bit of encouragement. The Japanese may not be demonstrative in their emotion by and large, but it’s not from a lack of it, nor from a lack of empathy.
I’m hoping to get the mass of pictures I took before digital and before CDs came standard with photos scanned sometime soon.