Five Months on the Other Side of the World

Everyone wants a story. They want to know the best meal you had, or the most fucked up thing you saw. Whether it’s a weekend trip or an extended vacation, people will ask you to reduce your travel experiences to a packaged sound-bite, to the equivalent of a Facebook status update – if a lengthy one. It’s natural. It’s understandable. And when you’re talking about a place as seemingly foreign and extreme and overwhelming as Tokyo, it’s probably even warranted.

The problem is that I’ve never been much of a storyteller.* I’m not much of a list-maker. I’m five months into a year-long sojourn slightly west of Central Tokyo, and what I have is a rather random collection of occurrences and happenstances, of emotions and feelings and internal monologues, and the half-baked memories thereof. Certainly, there are a couple of reductionist stories in there somewhere, but what I have is something more akin to a montage – and not an easily navigable, Rocky-like one either.

*Perhaps I’m not much of a story-liver either.

I should begin by telling you what about half my days look like. This has been an essential part of the experience too, the unrelenting, non-glamorous reminder of the grind that will always be there, whether you live in Tokyo, London, or Boise fucking Idaho.* I wake up, exercise, and walk the 10 minutes to my office at the university. I accomplish just about nothing for an hour, and then grab a cheap lunch at the school cafeteria or a nearby shop. I return to the office and stare at my computer for another 5 or 6 hours. Then I go home for dinner and feel guilty about having wasted another day. Sometimes, I fit a movie in before I go to sleep.

*Sorry, Boise.

Beyond this insight into the depressing life of an academic, it’s hard to convey what my life has been like for the past five months.  It’s this strange, enveloping, almost indescribable amalgam of the pedestrian and the memorable and the extraordinary and the surreal-turned-mundane. It has been and continues to be sensory overload, not only at the extremes – the fetish cafes and neon signs and cosplay – but in the everyday fashions on the streets, in the ubiquity of vending machines, in the never-ending good-bye bows between acquaintances, in the Shinto shrines placed atop mountains as if there was nothing strange about that at all, because of course there isn’t.

The wonders of the city never cease. I am reminded of that every time I look out the window of a train. When I exit at an unfamiliar station, I am greeted by dozens, if not hundreds, of new restaurants – the vast majority of which I will never have the time, or perhaps the temerity, to enter. There is so much to digest. Sumo wrestlers in training wander the streets of Ryogoku. Elaborate kimonos found sporadically draped over young and old alike on the weekends. A young guy – somehow not me – vomiting purple stuff in sketchy Roppongi. Purple stuff. Perhaps there is too much to digest.

I have had as much fun at the cheap, automated, touchscreen-based sushi place as I did at Sushi Bun in the famed Tsukiji market. I will always remember the young chef at the shabu shabu place – the lone broken-English speaker – coming out excitedly to encourage me to drink his specialty soup. The guys at the grilled lamb place sweetly sitting a white customer next to me, fearing that I was lonely. I can say that I’ve had amazing sushi and tempura and ramen and yakitori, and I have. But the sporadic Big Mac at McDonalds has evinced as much joy from me as any of a considerable number of great Japanese meals, reminding me time and again – taste is meaning, context is everything.

I have been to Nikko and Hakone and Enoshima and Yokohama and Kamakura. I have hiked Mitake and Takao and Kobo and Tsukuba. When the names of those places recede from the contours of my mind, as they are wont to do, the moments are what will stick with me. The awe-inspiring and mildly terrifying wolf cry I heard during a solitary snow hike in Nikko. The kindly stranger who provided a ride down the base of Tsukuba after public transportation had ceased operations. There was the winding ride up and down the Hakone hills; I tossed my cookies in a public restroom shortly thereafter. Again, too much to digest.

There have been low points too. A frustration that seeps in with every awkward interaction, an utter helplessness felt with every failed attempt in communication. A longing for the familiar encapsulated in Big Macs, and in the way my heart skips when I hear English outside Central Tokyo, as though I were a stray dog perking up at the sight of would-be rescuers. It is the loneliest city in the world, with all the positives and negatives that the designation involves. But fortunately, at least to date, the bad has been outweighed by the good, and many times over.

Five months down. I don’t have a lot of stories – more snippets than anything else. But there have been enough memories, enough feelings, enough of an experience, for a lifetime. Seven more months to go.


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