Part 1: Arrival
Nihon (日本) = Japan, the origin (本) of the sun (日)
You open your eyes, and all is dark and quiet on board flight 102 of Asiana Airlines. Well, until a crying baby behind you has something to say about that. With sleep decidedly out of reach, you slide open your window and see nothing more than dark clouds hiding an even darker Pacific Ocean below. Between the International Date Line and the number of times you’ve nodded off without once seeing the sun, your grasp of time is shaky. An end to the journey is certain, but when?
So, fast forward a few hours, hop on a new plane from Seoul, and feel the insistent rumbling of the plane bring you back to consciousness. You glance out the window, the morning sun now fully risen, and watch as a new country – and the next 7 weeks of your life – comes racing toward you.
For people in medieval Asia, Japan was the most eastern part of the known world, hence the country’s etymology. However, Japan is the origin of much more, known for everything from sushi to sudoku, pachinko to Pokemon. Like many teens in the West, my first introduction to Japan came from anime cartoons and manga comics; soon, I could be found tracing hiragana and katakana characters in the middle of class. A few other words, like kimono or sushi, have become well-known for most Americans; however, I hope this blog can add to your Japanese vocabulary as you and I gain a deeper cultural understanding of Japan over the next seven weeks.
Part 2: Moving In
Hana (花) = flower
Within five minutes of disembarking the plane at Narita Airport, the attentiveness to detail in Japan is evident. During the screening process, my fellow intern Devesh and I were sent back twice to fill out forms detailing our purpose for staying, our local contact information, and the items we were bringing into the country. Similarly, when we met with the manager of the sharehouses where we would be staying, we were asked to review a lengthy housing contract that would put the iTunes Terms of Agreement to shame. Scattered throughout the communal spaces are reminders about when to use the washing machines, how to dry the shower mats, how to sort garbage in special bags for burnables, non-burnables, plastic cups, paper… you get the idea.
However, that isn’t to say that those rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Rather, a shared understanding of the rules and expectations allows Japan to run like a well-oiled machine. Trains are timely, the roads are well-kept, and it took days before I could spot a single scrap of litter on the streets. As I walked to the train station the other day, I noticed a sign near a construction site that said “please cooperate” with the builders, and I think that captures the collectivist spirit of Japan quite nicely. People don’t adhere to the rules out of fear of law enforcement; they listen because deviating from the rules would hinder the flow of larger community, and by extension, hinder themselves.
And yes, there is a certain flow to this city, one that I am still trying to navigate. Koganei-shi, a suburban-esque area of Tokyo where I live, consists of bridges, narrow alleyways, cobblestone sidewalks, and unnamed side streets that have confounded Google Maps. Walking in Chicago can’t compare to a city that predates grid layouts. And squeezed within those narrow streets and sidewalks are pedestrians, legions of commuting bikers, lines of schoolchildren, compact cars, and buses that all intuitively know how to share the same road. My own commute takes me outbound from downtown Tokyo, so each morning and evening feels like swimming upstream, a solitary foreigner in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.
However, the sheer number of people isn’t the only remarkable aspect of Tokyo and Koganei. I’ve included several pictures of flowers because you can’t help but notice their abundance. The town is filled with flowerpots, hedges, and flowering vines of all varieties anywhere you go; I’ve even seen them bursting through ventilation shafts. Koganei’s very symbol is a sakura flower, which adorns everything from bridges to manhole covers. It’s emblematic of the serenity that pervades this town, and so despite the stress of a long journey and my own uncertainties in a brand-new country, I was able to fall asleep and mentally prepare for my first full day in Tokyo.
Part 3: First Day of School
Hatachi (二十歳) = twenty (二十) years old (歳)
My first day of work as an English TA at Technos College was also my 20th birthday, the age of adulthood in Japan. Coming of Age Day, celebrated on the second Monday of each January, is a day of ceremonies and parties to congratulate those who turned 20 in the past year or who will be turning 20 in the coming months. While my 20th birthday wasn’t met with the traditional reception of family and friends, I was warmly received by the kind and welcoming professors and long-term TAs at Technos who showed us around the college, introduced us to students, and helped us get our bearings. (Special shout-out to Selena, an IWU alum, who picked us up at our sharehouses and showed us how to use public transportation!)
Our main headquaters at Technos is the SkillUp Room, an open area for students to study, mingle, and practice their English with the TAs. Conversing with the students was an absolute delight, as we chatted about studying abroad, exchanged funny hand gestures, and shared our favorite Disney movies. I told Technos students about sororities and American college life, and they in turn shared their experiences from their home countries. It was a whirlwind of introductions, and I think I accidentally made more than a few students late by making 15-minute conversations turn into 40.
Soon enough, though, it was time to leave for the evening. Selena and Aaron, an English professor at Technos, were kind enough to take me and Devesh out for dinner. As the birthday girl, I chose a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where I was able to try natto (fermented bean) sushi, tofu, and a variety of seafood. Even Devesh, who isn’t the biggest fan of seafood, found something he enjoyed!
Part 4: Koganei, Kanda, and Akihabara
(Or, I Really Should Have Thought to Bring Walking Shoes)
Matsuri (祭り) = festival
During dinner, Devesh and I had made plans to visit Mikoshi Matsuri in Kanda, one of the biggest festivals in Japan, on Saturday afternoon, but before then, I chose to embark on a solo exploration of Koganei Park near my house. The morning couldn’t have been more picturesque, as people filled the bike trails, playgrounds, barbecue campgrounds, tree groves, and huge green fields.
Koganei Park, one of the largest parks in Tokyo, is also home to an open-air architectural museum, which honestly hadn’t piqued my interest when Aaron had mentioned it to me. But walking through that museum was like taking a stroll through time, as houses from the early 20th century soon gave way to a reconstruction of a 19th century town square, and even a farmhouse from 1603.
But Japan is an ancient country, and its history and customs stem back even further. After meeting up with Taka, a Japanese exchange student who came to IWU during our sophomore year, the three of us headed for Kanda Myojin Shrine. With all the drumming in the streets, it wasn’t hard to miss. The hill leading up to the shrine was lined with street vendors selling everything from plastic masks to delicious strawberry crepes. Inside the gates of the shine, throngs of people waited to pray to the gods, purchase protective amulets, take pictures, or just cool off under mist sprinklers.
First, Taka led us to the large line in the center of the courtyard, where people were waiting with their prayers. Taka showed the steps: throw a small coin (typically a golden 5-yen coin) into an offertory box, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more while telling the gods your prayer.
From there, we went to get our fortunes (omikuji) for the coming year, which involved shaking a cylindrical box of numbered sticks and selecting a stick whose number corresponded with our fortune. Devesh managed to get “big luck” (大吉), but as someone who ended an incredibly lucky sophomore year with the chance to visit the country of her dreams, I was perfectly content with the regular luck category.
After purchasing some amulets for protection and good fortune, we joined the crowds in cheering on the mikoshi, a miniature shrine in which a Shinto deity resides, as it was carried into the courtyard by a team of men and women carrying it on their shoulders using wooden planks. Taka’s father actually helps organize the mikoshi parades which happen throughout the area, and when we met up with him, Taka and Devesh wound up carrying it through the streets of Akihabara.
As I trailed behind the parade, I felt especially moved at the sight of shrines being proudly held aloft alongside skyscrapers. Akihabara is a huge commercial district, the heart of all things anime and otaku (fans of anime culture, typically Westerners). There are claustrophobic pigeon-hole stores overflowing with merchandise, and flashy billboards are everywhere you look. And I’m not hating on consumerism; we did plenty of window shopping after the festival. But, for a moment, there was a pause. Cars stopped. Heads turned. People paid attention.
And maybe I’m just waxing poetics; maybe all the mikoshi did was make people perk up their heads for a moment before returning to their everyday lives. But with all the baubles and trinkets that tirelessly fight for our attention, people took a moment to acknowledge something older, something that wasn’t trying to scream in their faces.
Maybe a moment’s enough.
Thanks for reading; see you next week. 🙂