Monday, September 8, 2014

An unusual feeling in Tokyo, Japan

I had this strange feeling during my five days in Japan that I just couldn't shake.

It's not a feeling I've had before while exploring a new place, so trying to describe it felt (and still feels) like trying to catch fog in my hands. I'll give it a stab in a bit, though.

My 3.5-hour flight to Tokyo ended up being a full day of travel, considering the time spent commuting to and from airports, not to mention the time spent in said airports. My checked bag was 15.4 kg, and there was no charge for being 0.4 kg over the limit. Woo!

I successfully got some Japanese Yen out of an ATM in Narita Airport, which was a relief since the opposite happened when I went to Bangkok earlier this year.

Getting to my hostel was also without problems, and I did just fine getting around by myself (aka up and down stairs) with the one suitcase, backpack, and side bag. However, I will never use this suitcase again. It's going right back to my sister and I'll invest in a good suitcase of my own - one with a functioning handle!

Anne Hostel - Tokyo, Japan
Anne Hostel - Tokyo, Japan

The strange feeling in Tokyo

In the days that followed, it didn't feel like I was in a foreign place. Tokyo felt almost unreal - but not surreal, which is an important distinction. When my now former boyfriend came to Korea, that was surreal. When my grandma and sister came to my school in Korea: surreal. But this? It felt like I was on the set of a movie or something - that it wasn't a real place - though there was nothing special in the appearance of the city for me to feel that way.

Although Tokyo is a ridiculously enormous city, it felt quiet.

Quiet in the parks, where you'd expect it to be quiet, but also quiet on the trains.

And quiet in the busy streets.

While I had previously thought Korean buses and trains were quiet, Japan has them beat. On the trains your phone should be on mute, and you're not allowed to talk on the phone, which the loudspeaker kindly reminded passengers of every so often. Some times a few people would be talking, but it was in such a hushed voice and unrecognizable to me that it barely registered as background noise.

I do wonder how closely related this bizarre feeling was to the fact that I went to Japan straight after spending a year in Korea.

After that much time in Korea, it's very easy to pick out if someone's speaking in Korean. Because in Korea, that's what you'll hear from everyone, approximately all the time.

But I still don't have a good grasp of what Japanese sounds like. Maybe that added to the fakeness of it all? To this strange vibe I was getting? Though keep in mind I felt nothing of the sort while in Bangkok, Thailand nor while in Hong Kong - two other places where I don't speak the language.

Tokyo on the surface

Leaving the language aside, I also made some visual observations of this "place that didn't feel real." Bikes were much more common to see - both being ridden and parked around the city.

Most of the bikes had at least one basket in front, though many had one in back, too. Parents of younger kids had child seats in front and/or in back of the bike. It was nice to see people riding bikes who were clearly dressed for work - both men and women.

So many of the men wore white button-up short sleeved shirts with black pants. Although Korea is fairly homogenous, the men do not dress this alike for work.

There were beverage vending machines sprinkled all over the city, just on random streets outside - many residential.

I wondered who owned each vending machine, and what the process is for getting to put one on a street side. Do the vending machine owners pay rent to put them there? Are there designated vending machine spots every x meters? Do people in Tokyo drink a lot more liquid than people in other places? Why is there a need for so many vending machines if there are still convenience stores around every few blocks?

But I suppose that's the other piece to this strange-feeling puzzle: I had questions but no answers. I hardly knew anything at all about this place I was visiting. I didn't do research beforehand or read up on any blogs or travel guides; I had been busy packing up and cleaning out my apartment!

In Korea I had a year of experiences, observations, first-hand stories from co-workers, and books/blogs that I had read to help me understand why Korean society is the way that it is. I could make visual observations, but I also had some depth to my understanding of Korean people. Knowing their values, customs, and history often told me why they did the things that they did, and why things were the way that they were. It was very much real, as I lived and had a role in that society for 356 days.

I had no depth in Japan, so perhaps that contributed to my foggy feelings. It wasn't different enough at first glance - unlike Bangkok and Hong Kong - so I wasn't sure how to categorize it or what to think of the place. It clearly wasn't Korea, but what was it? How did what I saw make it Japan? What wasn't I picking up on?

Friends around the world

Regardless of the unusual feelings that stayed with me all week, I enjoyed the time that I spent in Japan. One of the main reasons I decided to make the trip in the first place was because I had a friend from college who had just started teaching English in Japan back in June. We first met while in the same study abroad program in Madrid way back when (okay, 2009). The last time I'd seen her was also in Madrid, but in 2012. We overlapped for a short time as she moved back to Madrid to teach English while I was leaving after my year teaching there.

We were never close friends, but we have stayed in touch over the years - which I can't say for too many college friends. I never would have guessed our next encounter would be in Japan! In Tokyo we hung out several times during the week. I know it's hard to have visitors when you have to work and keep living your life, so I'm really grateful she spent her free time with me.

I was really impressed with her Japanese skills after such a short time in the country (blows my "Korean" out of the water), as well as how busy and integrated she's become already. It's not easy to start a new life in a foreign country, so I gained lots of inspiration and have tons of respect and admiration for what she's doing now (and what she's done in the past).

Here's some more of what I saw and did last week:

Cat cafe in Tokyo, Japan

Akihabara: Tokyo's electronics district

Arcade claw games in Tokyo, Jaan

Various temples in Tokyo, Japan

Purikura: Japanese photo booths

Yokohama, Japan

On my last full day in Tokyo a boy in my room at the hostel asked which place I liked better, Korea or Japan. "Uhhhhhh" I dragged out, while trying to process what had just been asked of me.

How can you compare a place you've lived in for a year - where you understand the culture and subtleties of everyday life - with a place you've been in for just five days, knowing approximately nothing about it? In the words of my friend Abby: Does not compute.

I would like to return to Japan for a longer period of time, and to visit other parts of the country as well. But for now, my memories of the place are twofold: The cloudy strange feeling that couldn't be pinned down, and the kindness and strength shown by my friend.
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  1. I spent my summer vacation in Kyoto this year and just absolutely loved every moment of it. I found it so completely different to Korea and actually really loved the quirks and the old traditions of that city.

    I do want to pay a visit to Tokyo at some point to see how different that will be. :)

    1. Yeah, I'd definitely like to return and spend more time there - both in Tokyo and other parts of the country.