Writing from: Shimokitazawa
I know that's not the most profound statement, but it's probably the most appropriate.
I've wanted to go to Japan since at least my teen years, but until recently it was a vague goal of mine — I'll be there some day. With a new job in New York and a couple of interested friends (Chris and David), I was finally able to save for and plan a two-week trip to Japan.
I'm going to skip the beginning. Suffice it to say that it took a while to find currency and then transport to our hotel for the first night. Oh yeah, and I'm not even counting the first night in Japan... that was just bizarre channel surfing and passing out at 4am.
First full day
David and I checked out of the Metropolitan Hotel Tokyo at noon, left our luggage in the lobby, and began wandering Ikebukuro — the neighborhood. We had a few hours before the apartment we rented would be ready, so we walked in no particular direction, in search of no particular thing, and discovering everything. Literally everything is interesting, stimulating, and new to me. It's so much that I don't know where to begin.
A palpable air of etiquette weighs over me in every circumstance. Oddly enough, my best reference is that of visiting my grandparents. They were the sweetest, kindest people, but you definitely knew to be very polite and respectful. It's the same in Japan. No one asks me to act a certain way, and there isn't even a hint of an admonishing glance when I may be less than polite, but know very well to be on my best behavior. Buying some snacks at a 7-11 is an awkward exchange of bowing my head excessively, presenting my money, receiving change as though it's a special gift, and saying ありがとう as I bow out.
For the first time in my life I am a distinct minority. It feels like the city is 99% ethnically Japanese. I notice one white person in a shop and she immediately stuck out. After using the bathroom and seeing myself in the mirror, I had this instant self judgement of "oh wow you are so white." I have never felt that before and I'm immensely grateful to Japan for giving me this context and experience. In Spain for a year I felt just like another person, and in Costa Rica during a few months I did feel different, but not extremely so. While it's clear that the physical differences are much more dramatic in this setting, I think the start cultural contrast is what heightens my awareness of this distinction. In other countries I've visited or lived, I knew the language (Spanish) and felt at least partially assimilated. Here, everything is different.
I think I've talked to all my friends about Japan before leaving and have heard plenty of their stories or stories of friends' trips... so I have difficulty giving credit when due. Someone told me that you might notice how some foreigners come to New York City and take pictures of seemingly every little thing, despite finding that a bit amusing, you'll soon be doing that yourself when you go to Japan. It's so true! I have heard that the Japanese don't particularly like it when you just walk around with your cellphone out the whole time, so I consciously keep it in my pocket, but sometimes I'll stop to capture unique advertising, street signs, or anything uniquely Japanese. I'll try to include a few examples below, but believe me, there's more of this on Path, Instagram, Twitter, etc etc...
The AirBnB apartment that the three of us are splitting for our stint in Tokyo is located in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. I posted some information about the area that I found during trip planning: here. The descriptions don't do it justice. We are in an amazing location! Describing it as "hip" is a start, and comparing it to Brooklyn's Williamsburg / hipster neighborhood is fair, but this place is a perfect concoction of cool. Everyone has different taste and values different types of space, but for me, this is perfection. It's dense, but extremely clean, relatively quiet (read: chill) for a bustling Saturday night, and heavily sprinkled with the salt and pepper of restaurants and shopping that I love; the first being distinctively Japanese, small, low-lit, and – by appearances – delicious, while the latter is eclectic, normal/high-priced (comparing to NYC), and heavily infused with American fashion. Most people are my age (I guess) but you see a few grannies shuffle by as well. I wish I had pictures of the area and I will try to take some when I go out tonight, but I am even more conscious of being a photo-snapping tourist when I'm in such a cool neighborhood.
In short, New York has been good "training wheels" for Japan, and as the metaphor suggest, easily pales in comparison. Yes, if you want diversity, New York is the best, but given that Japanese is 100% different for me, Tokyo easily wins my heart.
It reminds me of how I felt moving back home from Barcelona after a year: nothing compares to European cities, so I guess New York is the next best I can find in the USA. After living in NYC for a few years, it now feels like home and much more than a city-substitute, but Japan has awoken that sense of comfort, quality, and ease. I don't know why, but those are the words that come up when I think of how foreign cities make me feel. I think in some aspects they certainly do things "better" but I'm mystified how I can feel so comfortable in the unknown. I might take forever to deliberate a big purchase or make my next career move, but if a life abroad were offered to me, I'd have no qualms in packing it in and moving to wherever that may be. I have roots in New York now, so that wouldn't happen, but if I had a job, money for an apartment, and if Mary could come, then I could probably go anywhere. No problem.
Back to the trip, sorry.
Chris will arrive late tonight and join us at the apartment. I plan on finding some dinner around town, and maybe late night exploring if someone is willing to come out with me. Tomorrow should be full of wandering and maybe some specific sight-seeing.
If you're reading this and you know me (probably anyone reading this), I do have mobile wifi so you can reach me through iMessages, FaceTime, or snail mail - aka social media.