Japan is a country of contrast. The prime example of the old versus the new. Just being able to walk the streets, explore, and always end up somewhere gave me a whole new perspective on the Japanese lifestyle. Every Sunday, my friend Evan and I would go for walks across Tokyo. Starting in some corner of the city, usually Akihabara (close to our school), we would walk for hours, stopping along the way for family restaurant matcha lattes and ice cream and relying on road signs as our only directions. We would eventually end up in Shinjuku, or Shibuya, or Ikebukuro, massive tourist spots miles from where we had started, but along the way had traveled through areas that no tourist would discover and no guidebook would include because they were just everyday, normal, unexciting Japan. Homes, businesses, and restaurants frequented by citizens of Tokyo that no tourist had enough time to reach. And oddly enough, I found these little areas the most exciting of all. Discovering old, residential Japan smack in the middle of glitzy, modern, expanding Japan became my favorite activity.
When I would run in the morning down the thin shopping streets in my area, I noticed the people and the stores, already busy at 8:00. I watched school kids race by on their bikes, riding alongside a friend or two. I saw salarymen and women pouring out of the neighborhood subway station. Buildings, like Asics and other brands, had massive glass towers. Cement high rise condominiums stood next door to tiny neighborhood fish markets on the first floor of traditional Japanese houses. Moms waving their elementary schoolers off down the street. People walking small dogs. The same man every morning standing outside of a small car wash and auto repair shop, waiting for people to stop by.
The contrast of Japan during the night is impossible to describe. In the space of five minutes, you can walk from a blindingly lit area full of billboards, massive stores, and throngs of people, and suddenly make a sharp turn into a tiny alley, dimly lit and achingly quiet. The air is always full with the smell of the trees and wind and the perfume of every woman who rushes by you. More so than during the day, people out at night are more relaxed and let their guard down. Someone’s shoulder might bump into you as you pass. They take a little longer to whirl around and exclaim “Sumimasen (excuse me)!”, or sometimes they won’t even notice at all. Once you get off the main roads, you can walk through utterly silent streets and notice every little thing. A light flickers. A leaf drops. The air is never stagnant at night- it always moves and flows.
Not my favorite memory of Japan, but the memory that stuck with me most, was when I was walking back from a friend’s house, about three miles from mine. It was probably almost 8:00 at night. The air was still warm but a little misty- it was supposed to start to rain later on. Despite that and the fact that the sun was just about set, people were still out, carrying grocery bags and closing up their storefronts on the thin shopping streets in the area. Around the bridge over a small park crossing a big intersection, the area, however, was mainly deserted, except for an old woman pushing a cart on her way home.
I kept walking past buses, cars stopped at red lights, libraries with all the lights still on, and dim streetlights. A tiny restaurant somehow caught my eye. Red cloth hung over the sliding glass doors so common for neighborhood restaurants in Japan, with red lanterns gently swinging in the nighttime breeze. The space inside was only large enough for four stools at a counter, with the cooking space behind it. Through the dim indoor light, I could make out the figure of a salaryman in his customary dark suit, hunched over a bowl of ramen so close his nose was nearly hitting the broth, slurping up noodles with chopsticks. Behind the tiny counter, facing the customer, the chef stood with his back against the wall and arms crossed casually, a bandana tied around his salt and pepper hair. He said something quick to the salaryman, who promptly put down his chopsticks to reply before turning his attention back to the bowl. He lifted it to his mouth to drink every last bit of the broth. The chef tilted back his head and laughed before reaching for another bowl to begin to wash. That image stuck with me. It hit me with some wave of nostalgia and loneliness, calm and content. I don’t know how else to describe it. It gave me the deepest feeling of just “This is Japan” I had gotten in my entire six months.
In March, I went with my first host family to visit my host grandparents in the suburbs of Nagasaki. My host mom Mayumi and I spent the first day sightseeing, but the second day I took the best picture of my six months of Japan, at least to me. My host grandparents had treated us to a beautiful kaiseki lunch of at least 6 different courses of flawlessly arranged plates of food. Fresh Nagasaki sashimi, crispy shrimp and vegetable tempura, chawanmushi (a kind of savory egg custard with seafood and vegetables, delicately steamed in a small cup- incredibly difficult to make correctly), stir fried beef, steamed fish, rice, miso soup, and more. The food was amazing, but the view- that was the best part of the whole meal. I had seen Nagasaki harbor the day before, and all I had seen were shipping factories and freight boats pulling out of the busy waters. But on top of the mountain, seated on cushions around a low table in our private hut at the restaurant overlooking the harbor, I saw an entirely different side.
Nagasaki is built into the mountains. The large cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Osaka, are built on flat plains of land on the island. But Japan is a mountainous country, and the rest of the cities are built into and around the mountains, winding and twisting and going up so far you can’t see the whole city. I looked down from the top of the mountain we were on directly to the ocean below and saw nothing but azure and green. The water was that perfect shade of green blue that kids always paint in pictures. Tiny islands that looked as green as rain forests dotted the bay as far as I could see. Every once in a while, I would spot a flash of white on top of the waves that my host grandparents informed me was a pearl fishing float. The scene was so simple yet the colors so bold that I just stopped and stared out the floor to ceiling glass windows. A picture can’t capture all the colors I saw that day.
Even as Japan, and especially Tokyo, moved at such a frantic pace, everyone there knew how to slow down and relax. I could find little pockets for myself everywhere I went- at school, with my host family, on the street exploring new places, everywhere. Being in Japan taught me how to find a space and make it my own by learning about it and adapting.
I’ve been home for about three weeks, and life has already fallen back into its old routine pace. I run every morning, I go to work, I babysit, I see my friends. But I haven’t been able to give up some aspects of life in Japan. I take a bento box of lunch to work with me, with little portions of each dish separated. I eat out of little bowls and plates at home. I scour my local grocery store for tofu and dashi stock. I convince my little sister each night to go for a 3 mile walk with me after dinner.
I can’t thank my two wonderful host families enough. They made sure I always had somewhere comforting to come home to every day. I was always excited at the end of the day to be home and play with my host siblings, learn what was for dinner that night, talk about school, and hear about what eight year old Eri had eaten for lunch (lunch was always her favorite part of the school day) or what fifteen year old Takeshi had done at baseball practice, or, with my first host family, play trains with five year old Daichi. At night, we would sit with the sliding doors to the balcony overlooking the river open and eat dark chocolate squares, chocolate covered almonds, and bowls of fruit whole I worked on my Japanese homework, Takeshi scrolled on the computer, Eri practiced math or looked over my shoulder to help with my homework, and Akiko (the mom) got ready to serve dinner to Naoki (the dad) as soon as he came home from work. I miss that calm pace of life at night, where after a hectic day everything would just come to a halt. I could sit on a reclining chair, speak in my broken Japanese, and watch the night go by. Hopefully I’ve changed enough over the course of the past six months so that I won’t forget how peaceful and relaxed slowing down made me feel.
So what’s up next?
College, where I will try to figure out exactly how to combine all my interests into a career. Hopefully graduate school, where I will hone my interests. And then, life. I can live anywhere in the world, uproot myself and find a house and job and just go. I can pick any career in the world I want. Right now is the most hopeful time of my life- I have the whole world open to me, and all I need to do is reach out and grab it.
To my family, who let me live in Japan for six months, thank you. I know you were worried about me and you have no idea how happy it made me to know you trusted me and thought I was responsible enough to complete this trip on my own. Thank you for all the support you gave to me the past eighteen years.
To the friends I met in Japan, you know who you are. And I love you for every time you picked me up when I fell, dusted me off, and told me to be myself because you loved me for just who I was.
To the CIEE staff in Tokyo (and in America!), taking the subway early mornings on Thursdays might not have been the most fun experience, but I came to not exactly enjoy, but appreciate the magnitude of Tokyo at rush hour. In addition, thank you for planning all those awesome excursions and trips- I had a lot of fun and you have no idea how happy some of those trips made me.
Japan, I can’t thank you enough. You gave me some of the best friends I’ve ever made, made me more comfortable in my own skin, and taught me how to live on my own. I now can tell myself, whenever things get hard, “Genevieve. You lived on your own across the world for six entire months. And you don’t think you can handle this situation right now?”
Before Japan, I always had a problem with connecting “school Genevieve” to “friend Genevieve” to “work Genevieve” to my personal favorite, “family Genevieve”. But in Japan, I realized something. There’s only one Genevieve, and that’s “me Genevieve”. And “me Genevieve” might not be perfect, but that’s okay. Because there’s nothing that I say or do who can change the type of person I am at heart. And that person, underneath all the layers, is someone I can truly be proud of.
Thank you, Japan. I miss you and I hope we will be reunited someday.