Tag Archives: exploring

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

Japan: Year Three

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*drafted July 30, 2016

This seems appropriate. Three weeks before I’m to leave the country, I don’t know where my next destination is. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the answer to that question – and to that of the inextricably linked, “Did I get the job?” – actually reached my inbox sometime in the past few hours. But I have no idea. I’m in a mountain lodge, no wi-fi, no shower actually, putting this down with pen and paper. Because I got stuck on a hike that took longer than anticipated. Because the last bus took off at the unconscionably early time of 4:40 pm. But mostly, because I needed to get away from it all – the uncertainty, the stress, the crowds, and especially my own head space. Like I said, this seems appropriate.

The Japan experience has had its flaws. This is an understatement, and certainly more than enough space has been devoted on particular aspects of these flaws. But perhaps it is natural, at this late stage, to overlook those, and to consider the past three years of my life with rose-colored glasses. And that is indeed some of what I have been doing for what feels like months as endgame in Japan draws near. I suspect some of it resembles a senioritis of sorts. But I would vehemently disagree with the idea that nostalgia is all there is. Because ultimately, this has been an incredible, exhilarating experience. And it is now legitimately fucking hard to let go.

I’m leaving Japan because my fellowship is up. I’m not trying like hell to stay because the ceiling for both my personal and professional lives here are severely limited. Job opportunities tend to be few and far between. Dating has not exactly been a rousing success. My social circle remains generally confined to work colleagues, and as fantastic as one of those relationships has been, that too is not the healthiest of circumstance. I see my family much less than I would like, and my relationship with friends stateside deteriorates further with every year I spend here, more and more milestones passing by. So why then is it so difficult to leave? Why then am I not champing at the bit to move on?

The uncertainty doesn’t help, that’s for sure. That I am diving into the great unknown provides requisite pause. But familiarity explains only so much. No, what makes it so difficult to leave comes down simply to what I am leaving behind. The coolest city in the world, exuding life and vibrancy and excitement, filled at times with grandeur and decadence, at others marked by restraint and purity, and sometimes, yes, a fair bit of weirdness. A country full of wonders, with a seemingly endless supply of vast natural landscapes to get lost in and quaint towns and villages and spaces to absorb, with all my senses. And people who I connected with, in an almost visceral way, in a way that we only could here, because of the circumstance of Tokyo, Japan that envelops us all.

Who knows. Maybe some of this is bullshit. Maybe what is killing me is, as per usual, impending heartache. But whatever the reason, I’ve come – if not quite full circle – then most of a circle. Three years in Japan. Time of my life. Will you look at that.

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.

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.