Sunday, August 30, 2009

One Traveler's Journey Through Japan

It felt like a dream as I made the 14 hour trip from the U.S. I had day-dreamed as a child of someday visiting this place. The reality is now setting in with me. I am here. I make my way through the corridors of Narita International Airport and I am already struck with the visuals and sounds. The many styles of Japanese writing are all staring at me. It is not long before I am reminded that I am now the visitor. This is not my home. As I make my way to the train, I can already see how some stop to take a look at who I am and maybe even conjure up in their own mind of where I am from. I assume they think I am from America, but later I understand the vastness of the city of Tokyo and the cultural diversity found there as well. Russia, France, Italy, Germany, Great Britain etc are all represented in the melting pot that is Tokyo.

But I am not headed for Tokyo. My journey is one beyond the comfort of such a big city where I can somehow blend in. I was used to being a chameleon since I was raised so close to San Francisco and spent so much time being one of the masses, a native even. My train ride would take me a to a place where I would be not only be the spectator, but also the watched. It was a city removed from Tokyo and with its own identity. It was famous for its own reasons and sites, yet few westerners ever walked it streets or frequented its shops and restaurants. The train ride is now etched in my memory forever. I will never forget the young girl who was in charge of providing food and drink during the trip from her little cart. I will no doubt never forget how patient she was with me as I held their currency out in my hand and trusted her to only take what was due her for my first Japanese coke. I was acutely aware of the sounds that you heard on the journey. Sounds I had yet to fully understand.

Thankfully the English language is still being taught as their second language in their schools. I was greeted with such warmth and courtesy. I had learned already that some of my pictures and dreams that I had held in my mind about Japan were indeed true. The bows. The thank you’s. The respect. It was prevalent at the outset. I was escorted to my room and made aware that service in Japan is expected and not something to be awarded. Tips were refused and a nice courteous bow bid me goodnight.

I was now headed for the more stressful part of the trip, which was to navigate one of Japan’s busier stations outside of Metro Tokyo. I can only explain it by equating it to a sea, a sea of men and women. At times I was swimming up stream as I tried to determine which train, which staircase to take, which line? I made my way to the platform and there it was again; the sounds, the chimes. They always then led to an announcement in which I was always thankful that I could make out the town or station name which gave me confidence that I was soon about to board the right train.

I did notice the stares but soon enjoyed the fact that I was the traveler now. I was the one on the journey.

The journey was well on its way. I now found myself sitting down, shoes off, a part of an experience that I could not have imagined. The owner of the small historic home, converted now to small restaurant tells my interpreter that she cannot recall any other westerner ever stepping through her doors. She smiled and bowed to let me know how honored she felt, but it was me feeling humbled and honored. One course after another made its way to my plate. I was granted immediate respect due to my advanced chopstick training that I did before stepping foot on the plane ride over. I learned and observed that food in Japan is not just something consumed; food is considered a cultural experience, an art form and a societal event. It was a meal covering 2 hours, but filled with a lifetime worth of memories.

On the walk back to my hotel, I was given my answer to the sounds that I heard every day and all around the city. I walked to a street corner and a chime let me know when it was time to cross. I came to another corner and a different chime let me know it was time to yield. I then noticed the street walks were lined with what seemed to be a form of Braille. It was at that moment that it hit me. I was witnessing a country that had built an infrastructure around a part of their society that was suffering from the results of war. The atomic bomb left a legacy of blindness so much so that their society needed ways of going about their daily routine. The chimes or bells I was hearing in the train station were letting those who could not see know that a train was either coming or going. The chimes in the streets were protecting their people from walking into traffic. The Braille on the walkways was giving freedom to those that some consider handicapped.

It would be these sounds and images that I would carry with me forever upon my return back home. I would forever remember the sites of seeing the tall skyscrapers of downtown Tokyo then contrasted with the ancient shrine in a quiet section of Omiya. I would remember the masses being pushed on a crowded commuter train by those designated to do so and recognized by their uniform and white gloves and then compare that to being able to see the beginning of a wedding ceremony and dress dating back thousands of years at a Shinto Temple. I will never forget the bows, the respect, and the honor given me just for walking into their shop or eating in their restaurant.

As I make myself comfortable in my airline seat preparing for the 14-hour return trip home, I cannot help from looking and re-looking out the window again. I am asking myself, “Was I really here?” “Did this just happen?” And then, almost as a way of answering my own question, I look back as we ascend out of the Tokyo area and off in the horizon is what some told me would be a rarity; I see above the clouds the entire top half of Mt Fuji. It was true. I was in Japan.

This journey changed me. It shaped my perspective and opened the world to me…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well ~ Bryan,
This beautiful post proves what I was thinking.
Which I am not going to say here. But ~ that was
an altering story for me. I am not a big traveler and I feel like I saw something of great wonder.