My initial response to the city of Tokyo, Japan is that it’s a fascinatingly interesting place. It’s a lot bigger than I first thought it would be, as there are over 30 million people here. One of the initial liminal challenges I faced was that aspect that there are so many people. It’s honestly overwhelming. The city and culture is slightly strict, and not as “loose” as more American cities, but the overall vibe here is an understanding one. Everyone just kind of gets what’s going on. Thirty-million people are all moving across different train lines and streets at any given time, and in that everyone acts collectively as one.
The city itself isn’t what you’d picture as stereotypically beautiful. What I mean by that is that it’s a very similar city to one in the states like Boston or New York, except with it’s own set of rules, guidelines, and style. The style here is extremely unique and strange. One obvious reaction is to the language and figuring out what different signs mean in places like the JR Train system or even in a “kaiten” sushi bar (which is an amazing thing by the way). It’s a gorgeous city in its own right. In many of my daily travels here, I’ve felt like I’m on an entirely different planet.
Mentally, like the majority of my study abroad group living with me at the dorm, we’re all in a state of high. There’s a common stoke that we all are feeling in this first week, visiting different parts of the city like the gorgeous Odaiba where there’s a giant Gundam statue, and Electric Town Akihabara, where you can find everything anime, video games, arcades, manga shops and electronic technology. Going to different food spots is a new experience every time. I mentioned before the kaiten sushi bars, where you can order from a tablet and the food comes shooting down from a conveyer belt above your head. There’s an abundance of ramen shops, and it’s really surprising how many variations you can get with that.
As I said in my previous blog post, separation from my old culture was easy. Even only being here for a week, I feel as though I’ve already settled into the culture. We have these first two weeks as orientation, so I haven’t started classes, but even when those start they’ll slide nicely into whatever routine I’ve got from day to day. I feel like I’m at home even though I’m really not. Home to me means wherever I’m comfortable, and although Japan is an other-worldly bizarre country, I think it fits perfectly into who I am and my lifestyle. As a “gaijin,” outsider, or foreigner as one is called here, I’ve received strange looks from locals, but it hasn’t bothered me at all. Slimbach refers to this outsider feeling in his book as similar to being in the Belly of a Whale, as written by Joseph Cambell in Hero with A Thousand Faces. “But the key thing to bear in mind is this: The “belly” of the local culture will remain strange to us-and us to it-until we acquire a culturally appropriate frame of reference and repertoire of behaviors that enable us, despite our circumstances, to be an accepted and respected outsider.” (Slimbach, 154).
There’s a great spirit of community here, or what we call communitas. Even in my international study group at my dorm, my new friends are all just out to learn and help, which is exactly what I’ve found the Japanese culture tends to be. You just need to have a respected understanding of others and other people’s ideas, goals and questions. Talking with locals isn’t a difficult thing at all. They’ll tell you how things work in the whole structure of things, and even if some don’t speak English, most people here understand what you’re trying to get across. Again, the culture here is extremely friendly and helpful. In Odaiba for example, me and a new friend Josh were in the big mall area called Palette Town (yes, no lie, like the one from Pokemon), and were having trouble finding the Gundam statue after having lunch. The man we had asked at the restaurant left the restaurant, took us down the hallway and then down the stairs and outside, and pointed us in the right direction. No one in America would ever even think of being that kind, and there are stories like that that I’ve found all over the city. There’s a local bar that a solid squad of new friends and I having been frequenting called Bar Cream. It’s known as the local speakeasy bar, so it’s run by one guy and only has about five seats. The bartender/owner Hanna-san doesn’t speak much English, but he’s been a fantastic resource for learning about the area we’re living in, Matsudo. He’ll tell us about good places for food, and different cultural norms that we’ve been experiencing in our first week. He even gave us a free rice cooker.
My first week overall has been incredible. The initial experiences I’ve had and the new friends I’ve met will all stick inside my brain for a very, very long time. The only initial challenge I’ve had is my first few rides on the train system. I’ll begin talking about that more in depth in another blog post, but at first it really is difficult to figure out which line you need to take and where to go and where to get off, etc. Quite literally everyone here rides the train, so after a while you figure out what places are the best and the easier ways of getting there. As I’m writing and posting this, it’s very early in the morning on the East coast of the US, but nearing dinnertime for myself. I’m off to grab some gyoza and yakitori from an amazingly “oishi” (delicious) restaurant nearby!