The Glass Half Full

It occurs to me every so often that there will come a time – sooner than I imagine – when I will no longer live in Japan. It’s hard for me to envision that now. Hell, almost a year and a half in, it’s hard for me to recall a time when my day-to-day didn’t take place in Tokyo. I attribute the feeling partly to my lack of previous expat experience and partly to Japan’s encompassing nature; the move as a result transformative, total. But in recent weeks, in moments of clarity, I have to come to recognize that this period too will pass, to evolve into nothing more than a vague remembrance.

I imagine I have become cognizant of the transient nature of my stay precisely because I am about halfway through it. More often recently, I have experienced a feeling best described as an anticipation of nostalgia. I think not about how surreal life is now, but about how surreal it will seem: that I can one day refer to that exotic period in my early 30s when I lived in Tokyo and saw all of Japan. It’s a forward-looking romanticism of the moment to be sure, yet it has somewhat paradoxically also allowed me to live more in the moment, to gain a greater appreciation of my time here.

It’s been an interesting process. It wasn’t until I left Southern California that I could readily pinpoint the things I loved about it growing up: the weather, the food, the diversity, the space. It wasn’t until I left Boston that I saw it as more than just a needed change of scenery; no, I loved the closeness, the character, the river. With Tokyo though, I haven’t needed the separation. Maybe that’s because of how non-replicable it is, how foreign it is. Whatever the case, I’ve become quite aware of the city’s (the country’s) draws, and more so as of late. For all my struggles* – and they persist, I’m going to miss the hell out of living here.

*Well-documented on this blog. Examples here and here.

For starters, there’s always more. I did a hike up Mount Buko this past weekend, and as I surveyed my surroundings from the peak, I kept thinking that I would never be here again, never enjoy the view again in my life. There are just too many mountains in Japan, too many trails, too many views to move onto. There is no shortage of places in general to explore, parks to stroll through and trails to stumble along and towns to take in. The enormity of the metropolitan area is something I too often take for granted, but it strikes me every time I hop onto an unfamiliar train line, or venture out of another new station.

That I never run out of locales to explore also underlines the accessibility of the whole of the country. I may miss my car desperately, but primarily as a product of culture. Mode of transportation is somehow the last thing I am concerned with when I make plans to travel, when I identify events to attend, attractions to visit, trails to hike. Not only is the public transit system vast, but clean, quiet, safe, frequent, efficient, even warm as need be. I haven’t once carried any sort of map or schedule even in the more rural parts of the country; the GPS on my phone is sufficient, and Japan takes care of the rest.

It’s strange too to live in a country where crime is basically non-existent.  I fall asleep on trains. I walk in pitch darkness in places I’ve never been. I talk to strangers of all kinds. I carry copious amounts of cash. I leave my stuff strewn when I use the bathroom at a coffee shop. I stumble home drunkenly at 2 in the morning. The stories I read about shootings stateside appears as though from an altogether different reality. The only policemen I see on the streets here are on bikes heading home at the end of the day; otherwise they’re at their posts, in cute little corner stations. I worry about the readjustment.

People are exceedingly polite here. The entire staff of a ramen shop welcomes your arrival with gusto; the shopkeeper thanks you and bows a dozen times as you awkwardly make your way out the door. I don’t care that it’s a facade, if it is one. I approach people constantly to ask for help – directions, clarifications, definitions. Yet, my general inability to communicate has not deterred natives from trying.  Sure, it often doesn’t work out, but no one loses their patience, no one sends me away. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen ANYONE raise a voice in public – none of it directed at me.

I’ll miss a ton of small things too. The artistry of the manhole covers, the hot drinks from vending machines, the unending chants at baseball games. I’ll miss paying bills and picking up packages at the convenience store. I’ll miss being overwhelmed by the sheer number of restaurants in any given building, let alone any given block. I’ll miss the food itself, of course, from the impeccable presentation at even a middle-of-the-road izakaya to the ubiquity of sushi and bento and tempura and tonkatsu – even the fucking kebab stands that somehow decorate the city. I’ll miss the ability to do things by myself without feeling ostracized. And I’ll definitely miss not tipping.

I have 18 months left in Japan. On the good days, when considering the spectrum of my life, it somehow seems short.


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