Monday, May 21, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Being Somewhere Foreign

Although I have been traveling to far away places since I was 6 years old, for the most part I hadn't experienced anything extremely foreign. Most of my travel experience has been to either Alberta or California, with the occasional trip so somewhere new, like Hawaii, Arizona, British Columbia, and Mexico. Canada, while retaining an entirely different essence than the US, has never pushed my comfort zone so far as to feel “foreign.” My trips to Hawaii and Mexico were so tourist oriented, that the walls of my resort hotel or cruise ship kept me from really experiencing the uniqueness of those places. So when I went to Japan, the sensation of being in a truly foreign land, built up by a lifetime of dreaming, obsession, and hype, was intense.

The understanding that I was even going to Japan didn't really dawned on me until I was on the train traveling from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station. Looking out the window as we moved through the relatively uncrowded outskirts of Tokyo it finally hit me that I wasn't just going to Japan, I was there. And it was so different. The trees, roads and houses were crowded together with only loose whispers of order, making the careful city planning of Colorado cities seem obsessive-complusive. The roofs of the houses spread out passed the walls into the pointed corners so characteristic of East Asian architecture—giving even the cheapest, smallest house a traditional flair reminiscent of shrines and pagodas and samurai castles. The signs and billboards we passed were written in a language that, despite my years of learning it, I could not decipher in the brief moments they flew by. It was exactly as I had expected it to look, and yet everything was a surprise. I was bouncing in my seat, nose pressed against the glass like a child. Turning to my boyfriend, Justin, who was also studying abroad, I said, “I can't believe we're here.”

This excitement was enough, for a while, to counteract the fact that I had just flown across the Pacific Ocean on a cramped airplane and had managed very little sleep. It wasn't until we actually got to Tokyo Station—the biggest and most crowded train station in the world—that the other, scarier side of being in such a foreign place began to take its toll. My language courses had not prepped me for the plunge of being surrounded by people who only spoke Japanese. As my weariness sunk in, I suddenly could not remember anything I'd learned, and anybody who talked to me sounded like an alien under water. Not to mention that speaking Japanese to a native still made my palms sweat and my heart beat like a percussionist on crack.

Navigating Tokyo Station, even with the supposed “help” of my boyfriend's brother who lived in Tokyo, was a nightmare. For a small town girl who is used to cities of 3000 and can barely handle her university of 30,000, it was terrifying. People in Tokyo Station don't watch where they're going. They are focused on getting to their destination as fast as possible and they don't notice anything else—even two dumb foreigners with two huge suitcases each, standing in everyone's way looking completely lost. Some guy even intentionally tripped my luggage. Justin's brother adopted this hurried mindset, too, and completely forgot (or didn't care to find out) that I had no idea how to buy train tickets, or get through the check points, or where to go. When I tried to explain, I was rushed past the check point anyway, quickly told “It's okay. It's okay.” Luckily no one checked our tickets on the train we took to get to dinner, because I definitely did not buy one.

This was not going as I had hoped. Justin and I had traveled to Japan shortly after the big earthquake in March 2011. After a month of not knowing whether we could go at all, we finally got the green light a mere week before we were supposed to leave. Having to rush all our preparations in one week, we had no time to really understand what would happen once we got to Japan. All I knew was that we were going to eat with Justin's brother in Tokyo before getting on to a bus to take us north to Akita province. As such, when we got there we were completely clueless.

After my illegal train trip we found ourselves in Akihabara, where we were supposed to eat. In case you don't know, Akihabara is a neighborhood of Tokyo that specializes in the crazier side of Japan. It's full of shops that sell everything you could possibly obsess over—anime, electronics, video games and arcades, maid cafes, porn, candy, toys, karaoke, alcohol. All of this is advertised with signs of bright, glaring neon that hover over the densely crowded streets filled with every kind of person you can imagine. It's a place I've long wanted to visit, but after the confusion of Tokyo Station, its intensity was overwhelming. There was too much too look at, it was too bright, too crowded, I was tired and my feet hurt. Our luggage was heavy and cumbersome, and dragging it through such a crowded neighborhood was like trying to maneuver a semi through rush hour L.A. traffic.

When we finally reached our restaurant—which was supposed to be sukiyaki (my favorite Japanese dish)--Justin and I were cranky and exhausted, and more than a little hungry. The meal was certainly not sukiyaki, and was instead some overpriced assortment of tough cuts of beef, cooked over a table grill. The portions were inadequate, and yet they were so expensive I couldn't bear to order more.

Justin's brother and his wife were anxious to make the most of our brief time in Tokyo before we left for school, so we made a pathetic effort to go a neko cafe, or a cafe where you enjoy food with cats around. It sounded cute, but when we got there it was closed. Despite offers to try something else, Justin and I just wanted to go wait for our bus and sit down. So we did. With our butts cooling on a cement ridge around the sidewalk, we waited until our bus came and left without much ceremony. We would, after all, see them at the end of our trip.

The night bus was nice and quiet and dark, and I slept with my head in Justin's lap, despite my misgivings about public affection in Japan. (Cuddling and kissing in public in Japan is not as accepted as it is in the United States). I was tired, and at the moment I couldn't care less about what people thought of me using my boyfriend as a pillow.

When we arrived in Akita and at our school, Akita International University (AIU), some of the exhilaration began to return. The campus was beautiful, and the welcome committee was full of friendly, warm, energetic people. Exchange students from all around the world were chatting in groups, already making friends. We were shown our rooms, where the novelty of being in the dorms again brought back memories of my freshman year of college, when I first felt the delight of striking out on my own. I set up my futon rental in my bunk bed, crawled into it. Although I was not used to sleeping on a thin mattress on top of a wooden bed frame, I fell asleep instantly, ready and excited to take on the next day which would, hopefully, be much better than my first day in Japan.

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