The excitement of travel rarely sets in for me until the very moment that I’m stepping out of the house to go to the airport. I had been waiting years to have a chance to travel to Japan, and months of waiting once I applied for that small chance. It’s hard to be excited at 3:30 a.m., especially if you pulled an all-nighter after work to make sure there was no way of waking up late. I had no problem being excited this early this time, though. My no-sleep strategy worked, and there’s plenty of time to sleep on a ten-hour plane ride, so who really cares?
I couldn’t tell you anything about the flight to Seattle as my eyes were closed for nearly all of it. However, I can tell you that waking up on a plane that’s only a few hours away from Japan isn’t too shabby. The excitement was at full force and we were all constantly wondering what things we would find there. At this point, my legs and back were at a point of discomfort that I started to believe that the airplane seat wasn’t too bad. Lines must be blurred when you travel overseas; up is down, daytime at home is now nighttime, and airplane seats are comfortable.
Arriving in Tokyo was an experience to say the least. Everyone on the bus was weary from traveling, but we had big eyes for the things ahead. I actively tried to not have too many preconceived ideas about Japan so that I could have the truest experience, and the initial feel I got from Japan is one that stayed familiar through the whole trip. There is a certain atmosphere around the lush greenery surrounding the cluttered and vertical buildings. This was vertical in the sense that they don’t have the space to build out like we do here in Texas. They conserve space in a plethora of ways, including having three stories at every KFC or McDonald’s. I never noticed it as clutter until someone said it out loud, and it is the most organized clutter.
Conservation of space is one of the biggest things I noticed while in Japan. Most every place you could go into had things very close together and well organized. At electronics stores, there could be fifty nearly identical products placed inches away from each other on a wall of lights. I’ll admit, it can be daunting to have that many lights and things so close together, but there was something about it that also worked. The market stalls were packed together with no open space. At one Nike store we visited, all the inventory was kept on a track of rolling shelves that expanded and contracted depending on what item was being retrieved by the worker. Little details like this were everywhere, and they came together very quickly for the big picture.
The Japanese also have an interesting view on conformity. Many Americans tend to pride themselves on being individualists, but this is not the case in Japan. As Martinez often reminded us, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” In the business district of Tokyo, every single person you could see, whether biking, walking, or driving a car, was wearing a suit. All of them were generally the same color, and if you were in something flashy or even just out of business attire you would stick out like a sore thumb. I noticed the amount of conformity here much more than anywhere else, but it stuck in my head for the rest of the trip.
When we went to the baseball game, there was a different kind of conformity. If the business world made everything a shade of gray, then the Seibu Lions made everything a shade of blue. There were choreographed chants for each and every player, and it seemed that all Japanese fans had flags with them. They would wave the flags on cue to the chants and cheered the team on with more commitment than you’ve seen anywhere. There was clearly a following for this team, and it was something much bigger than just a few diehard fans.
This sense of comradery didn’t just end at the baseball game. Many of the Japanese people we met acted in similar ways and reflected the general culture as well. For example, it is important in their culture to be a good host. This can mean at a hotel, at a restaurant, or a store, especially if it isn’t a chain or franchise. Each person seemed delighted to be able to speak with me or help me in any way, even if it seemed like a small task.
This attitude came from their pride in the country, and the desire to help every outsider get the very best that Japan has to offer. Their sincerity was genuine, which made every step of the trip a little bit more special. Once again, it came down to the small things making the difference, like when the waiter at the karaoke place joined in for a song, or a worker at a sticker shop eagerly showed off original designs. The people had the energy to match such an electric place, which made sure that every corner seemed like an adventure that you just had to keep following.
This trip didn’t come without its fair share of complications, however. The language barrier was an obvious hurdle that we all dealt with at some point or another. Fortunately for us, most people there could understand more English than they could speak. Even so, I had to rely on gestures as well as have to pick up local dialect and customs to make sure I was able to communicate effectively. Some of the most important things to learn were the Japanese phrases for “please” “(kudasai), “thank you” (arigatō), and “excuse me” (sumimasen).
Ordering in a Japanese restaurant can be tricky, but most of the time a ‘point and shoot’ method is more than enough, providing there’s pictures of the meals. It also helped that most restaurants also have displays of what they serve outside, so you know what to expect before you walk in. I also learned the hard way that water, or mizu, isn’t very easy to come by in restaurants. More than just once or twice I asked for water with my meal and was told “no.” I was a little shocked, but they often will only let you order a drink off the menu and get a tiny cup of water on the side. This was one of the biggest shocks during the trip. I thought since Japan is a generally pretty healthy country, they would have water readily available. I never found the reason of why they could be reluctant to have water, so it remains a mystery to me.
I would suggest to anyone going to Japan if there is something that you are interested in doing, do it! There are tons of ways to reach your points of interest, and it’s not always a straight path. It may sound a bit cheesy, but the point of an adventure is to wander a little. It’s as important to see the things you didn’t expect as the things you traveled halfway across the world to visit. There are moments everywhere and finding them is half the fun.