As I write this post, on April 12th, it occurs to me that seven years ago today, I embarked on my very first international trip – to Japan. I went with a high school group, led by my wonderful history teacher and our school’s chaplain, who had lived and done missionary work in Tokyo for thirty years. This trip was something that I had wanted so very badly, to the point where I raised the money to go all on my own. And let me tell you, regardless of the fact that I was only there for a little over a week, the year’s worth of work before that was completely worth it.
Obviously, my interest in going to Japan was fueled by an intense interest in animanga. I will never pretend, regardless of who I’m speaking with, that I’m anything but what I am, even when that means I have to admit that I went through a very awkward and undereducated Japanophile phase in my life. One of the beautiful things about actually going to Japan, though, was the lovely side effect of loving the culture even more, understanding the media I was consuming even more, and really and truly understanding where the line between love and marginalization gets blurred. And beyond changing my perspective of a culture that I love, it helped to form my outlook on life going forward.
While much of my time in Japan was dedicated to various tours of shrines and monuments (because that’s how you get the cheap group deals – by going on educational tours), my favorite moments were those where we, a group of teenagers, were left to our own devices in a foreign country. It sounds dangerous, I know, but how awesome is it, at seventeen, to be roaming down the streets of downtown Kyoto with a small group of close friends from home? It’s like a scene out of a teen movie, but one that I wouldn’t mind watching.
In the nine-floor Namco arcade in Kyoto, where the upper floors have gambling on horse races and myriad pachinko machines, I played the taiko-drumming game Taiko no Tatsujin for hours on end. For the rest of my trip, I had to wear bandages around the insides of my thumbs because of the drumstick-chafing. In an arcade in Ryogoku (Tokyo), I was disappointed when I couldn’t find the same game, but observed a gentleman drinking milk out of a small carton while simultaneously smoking a cigarette and playing pachinko as his buddies watched over. In fact, the smoking culture surprised me very much; cigarettes were available in vending machines everywhere, nearly everyone smoked, and there wasn’t a single cigarette butt on the ground in any of the cities I visited.
In Tokyo’s fashion district, Harajuku, I finally saw citizens other than homogenous Japanese, many of whom hail from Jamaica and Haiti, selling various wares to the Rasta-obsessed Japanese fashionistas. I went into a store specializing in goth fashion and music, where the owner, a middle-aged man, spoke to me in perfect English about my interest in Japanese music, in Tim Burton, and in the goth aesthetic. My friend Amanda very easily won over some punks who ran a shop similarly full of music and clothing; they were able to bond over a shared interest in NOFX, and the kindly young men even gave her a huge discount on a rather expensive article of clothing. I bought myself a jacket at a store that specialized in clothing for drag queens.
In Nara, I was able to feed the wild roaming deer and catch the tail-end of the cherry blossom season. The April light that particular afternoon gave me some really beautiful photos that I still treasure as some of my favored memories. I ate a bowl of ramen that was a spiritual experience – never had I eaten such a comforting, filling meal, nor have I had such a wonderful culinary experience since. And this was just some little ramen shack on an outdoor strip mall somewhere in Nara.
I wore a yukata and slept on a futon on a tatami mat floor. I ate raw fish with great voracity. I consumed gratuitous amounts of rice, green tea, and miso soup. I watched a really incredible street performer and bought his CD. I regularly shared a room with Amanda, who has remained a close friend and kindred spirit even beyond the confines of Catholic high school. And even though I’m not sure how much I remember from the museums and the shrines and the lectures, I learned quite a lot of very important things.
Objectively, the world is a large place. There are a multitude of rich and divergent histories that span the globe, and the depth of cultural experience can be staggering. But I think it’s not nearly as staggering as the depth of individual experience. I know a lot about Japanese culture and history, and that was at least partially influenced by my visit. But more than that, I know a lot about how being in Japan made me feel, which was conditional to the people I was with and the specific areas I visited. And at the risk of sounding like every white tourist, I found myself very much changed.
Seven years later, and I consistently find myself wishing to go back. I struggle with the knowledge that a second time won’t be like the first, though it’s hard to say whether it would be better or worse. I have done quite a bit of traveling since then, living for three months in Italy, and also visiting Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Brazil. And as much as I loved all of those places and would certainly go back in an instant, none of them sings sweetly to me as I daydream, reminding me of who I was and who I became.
And all of this because I watched a cartoon every day after school when I was five.