By Ria Capone – AmeriSpan Staff
In fall of 2005 I found myself at the Narita Airport in Japan. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I got there. Well, I know how I “physically” got there. I got there by enduring a sixteen-hour plane ride where I seemed to be the only passenger who couldn't fall asleep. I remember looking around and observing the old Japanese men gently snoring with their shoes off. I remember the group of teenagers to the right dressed in outrageous fashions with their headphones blasting pop music. I remember Ai, the girl who sat next to me and said that the kanji of her name meant indigo blue. She had just studied English in Texas and casually joked about how unhealthy American food was. I was lucky that I had met her for as soon as I got off the plane I was overwhelmed by the chaos of the airport. Yet, this chaos was different. Perhaps it is hard to explain but it was organized; organized chaos. There were so many people and so many different things going on yet the atmosphere appeared in order. I like to compare this chaos to a beehive or an ant colony where everything is working harmoniously together.
In no way do I mean to compare Japanese culture to the habitat of insects but it is this rhythm of life in metropolitan Tokyo that I believe makes it distinct from any other big city. I witnessed the same organized chaos in the districts of Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Ginza. It was exciting to be immersed in the busy patterned movements of people. Half the time I thought that everything was staged, that I was in some movie and all those moving around me were just extras. Maybe I was in something similar to the Truman Show, that movie with Jim Carey where everything around him is staged and aired on national television, all while he has no idea. Alright, I realize that is a stretch but rest assured when you go to Tokyo, and you step off that plane you'll feel like you are in another world and you may continue to feel that way right until you are about to leave.
I was fortunate to live in Tokyo for four months. I resided in a student apartment on what I believe was the “outskirts” of Tokyo in Jiyugaoka. This area is referred to as the “Bellaire” of Tokyo for all the fancy houses and cars that line the tiny streets. I never met any of my neighbors for the area was quiet and serene. I suppose the closest encounter I had with them was when I would spot them peeking through their window curtains. At first I found this quite odd. Why would they not reveal themselves or stand on their porch to greet me and the other students that lived there? I was later informed by my resident advisor, Kota, that we were being “too loud” as the residents were not used to people congregating on stoops to just hang out. The only sound I would hear, other than the voices of the students I lived with, was this loud, melancholy recording of a man singing about something. It belonged to what we referred to as the "yam man" who was an older man driving a rickety truck with crates filled of cooked yams by our apartment everyday. I forget the exact price they were but those yams were cheap and delicious.
I'm honestly not quite sure why I felt it important to write about the yams. It seems to be this constant memory I'll never forget, similar to the produce stand near my house where some mystery neighbor or farmer would leave fresh produce out. The amazing thing about this was that next to the produce were prices and a small box for yen. I walked by this stand 3 or 4 times a day and found produce missing and the box full of yen just sitting there! You could never do something like that in the states. Japan definitely nourishes some unspoken honor system. Rarely does on hear about theft or other acts of crime. Someone once told me the most commonly stolen object in Japan is umbrellas.
I also feel that is important to mention my experience with Tokyoites and all other Japanese people who I'd encountered. At first I found my place within the city, or society, to be insignificant for there are far too many people that tread the sidewalks day in and day out. I felt like a number and not a name. I noticed that no one seemed to make eye contact or acknowledge that I was among them, or that I existed. This is a bit challenging for me to express. It's not that I felt I should be given some special privilege or placed on a pedestal because I was a gaijin. It is that I found myself alone at first, deep in thought as to what I was doing in Tokyo. I don't believe I have ever thought that much to myself before. I initially believed that many Japanese would know English and that I would hear it openly, flowing through the streets because of their fascination with American culture. Sure this might be the case for places like Roppongi, but elsewhere I was surrounded by conversation I couldn't understand. Since I was taking courses in English at a University I paid little attention to learning Japanese, setting my Japanese homework aside to focus on bigger school projects and essays. And there I was walking the streets of Tokyo as a 20 year old, this big dream I had always had was now true. Something was just missing and at first I thought I was homesick, that I couldn't handle being in a foreign country. After a few more weeks, I realized that these feelings I harbored were inaccurate, that I was merely misinterpreting those that surrounded me.
I had come to find, throughout my stay, that many of the Japanese people I met, or those that studied at the same school as me were just shy. Some were nervous about using their English and others felt it inappropriate to approach strangers for they are respectful of people's privacy. Also, as the months wore on, I met several Japanese people, at school, while at cafes, at the grocery store, all of which were extremely friendly and helpful guides showing me their favorite spots. I have several stories of wonderful nights I spent in Tokyo which involve meeting Japanese people. Because this excerpt is getting quite long and if you're still reading your eyes are most likely tired… I'll mention just one:
Another American student and I decided to venture through Jiyugaoka one Saturday to see what cool places we could find. We stumbled across this tiny building with the sign “Jazz Café” outside. After climbing down several steps we entered a small room that consisted of a bar, the bartender (obviously), a goldfish, and a Japanese couple. A bit underwhelmed with the atmosphere and the fact we were expecting live jazz music, we headed for the exit. As soon as we turned around the couple started calling to us in Japanese and patted the seats next to them; they wanted us to stay. They immediately ordered us drinks from the bar and tried to converse with us in broken English. Since none of us understood each other's native language, we spent most the night pantomiming and teaching each other “slang” phrases and words. They also enjoyed telling us what American movie stars we resembled. Apparently my friend was Kevin Bacon and I was Meg Ryan (we don't look anything like them!) After a while the bartender joined in and there we were, the 5 of us, sitting in a small jazz cafe with no jazz on a Saturday night. All of a sudden the bartender jumped up from his seat and said something excitedly in Japanese. Kevin Bacon exchanged confused glances with me. The lights started to dim and a television is lowered slightly from the ceiling. And that's when we hear the opening “Dun Dun..Dun dun dun da..” of Jon Bon Jovi's song “It's My Life” followed by Jon Bon Jovi strutting across the television screen (I apologize if that's not the title as I am not a particular fan of him.) It was truly hilarious because Kevin Bacon and I came to the conclusion that the bartender assumed we were huge Bon Jovi fans because we were from America. Out of courtesy we sat there and watched the next couple of songs…
In sum, Tokyo was incredible; I'd even say it was life changing. I will never forget my time spent there and I eagerly a wait when I can go back. Because… where else would I be able to hang out with complete strangers, in a tiny jazz cafe with no jazz, pantomiming why I am there, being compared to an actress I look nothing like, all while grooving out to Mr. Jon Bon Jovi? Only in Japan, I promise..
By Ria Capone – AmeriSpan Staff