JOURNEY TO JAPAN
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. As an 80s baby, I grew up in era where America was simultaneously infatuated and afraid of what Japan’s ascendance as a global economic superpower meant for our own prospects. This tension became locked in the public consciousness and gradually the frenzy about Japan crept into our media, our style, and even our culture. They introduced Hayao Miyazaki and gave us the impossibly stylish Akira –the bellwether for anime’s explosion in America–the beloved Sonic the Hedgehog, Power Rangers, and home video game consoles like the Super NES, Sega Genesis, and Sony PlayStation. It’s in this period Americans would be most influenced by Japanese “soft power” and were inspired to develop franchises like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Karate Kid, and Mortal Kombat, began gorging ourselves silly on themed sushi, and developed the time honored tradition of getting smashed and singing “Living on a Prayer” at karaoke. For a kid, Japan’s shadow loomed large and many of us found the thought of it irresistible. At least I did, and in some ways, still do.
The iconic film poster from the 1988 release of Katsuhiro Otomo and Izo Hashimoto’s “Akira”.
My deep interest in Japan became the backbone for my course of study in college–International Relations and Asian studies with a concentration on Japan. I learned Japanese and researched the country in areas like culture, economics, politics, spirituality, media, philosophy, and literature. Despite a deep commitment to learning about Japan, I never had the opportunity to visit. This inability to connect physically to a place I had put so much of my life into learning about made Japan, over time, feel conceptual, foreign, and fake. Eventually, I lost some of my interest. However persistent things like unconscious bowing, removing shoes in my home, the need to eat Japanese food and speak the language whenever possible kept my interest in Japan at a noticeable, albeit weak simmer.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m notoriously adverse to social media, though the nature of my business forces me to engage with it in much the same way a child is forced to eat vegetables. The difference with social media, of course, is that these “vegetables” tend to be snarky memes, cat videos, food porn, kvetch statuses, and the exercise of deleting that girl with the sketch profile trying to sell you discount “Ray Ban” sunshades. So it was surprising when, through the noise of Facebook, I found a post from old acquaintance, Mike Turner of the New Orleans Japan Society, being interviewed on local news appealing to young professionals to apply to go on a cultural exchange trip to Japan through a program called the TOMODACHI Initiative. “Finally”, I thought, “this is my chance to go to Japan”.
After a successful interview and rigorous vetting process, I was selected to be one of nine individuals who earned the right to represent New Orleans on our trip to Japan. During the process, I found out that we’d be visiting a city called “Matsue” in Japan during our trip for approximately 10 days. At the time, I knew very little about Matsue outside of the fact that it has a sister city relationship with New Orleans and that it was a smaller town—so much so that an average Japanese person can’t easily place it. In the lead up to the trip, I was confronted and conflicted about the reality of visiting Japan. Over the years, I had obsessed about what visiting Japan would be like, from the places I’d go, things I’d see and do, to the horses I’d eat—it’s a thing there. In other ways, I was nervous that the “Japan” I’d built up in my head and come to love vicariously through stories from my Japanese friends would be so radically different in reality that I’d leave Japan feeling disappointed and lost.
The amazing Matsue TOMODACHI committee that planned our trip.
Getting to Matsue isn’t easy. The trip from New Orleans takes about a day on a multi-point route that goes something like: New Orleans > Dallas > Narita > a bus through Tokyo to Haneda Airport > Izumo > and finally a short drive to Matsue. If you haven’t prepared adequately, you’ll find yourself thrust a day ahead, likely dehydrated from all the in-flight wine (if you’re me), and hyper aware of that fact that no one is speaking English…not even a little bit.
Man texting at the Narita Airport train terminal.
When I imagined arriving in Japan for the first time, the imagery was usually some whiplash inducing montage of Shinjuku’s kaleidoscopic neon streets, smiling geisha, bowing mascots, roaring kanpai toasts, and hai chizu photo-ops set to a soundtrack of early 2000 Hamasaki Ayumi. “This was Japan”, I mused or at least the one that movies like Sophia Coppola’s orientalist Lost in Translation would have you believe. My point of arrival was Narita Airport, a functional, but by no means extravagant, airport that reads the same as any airport, except the fact that everyone and everything was rendered Japanese. Shuffling about aimlessly through Narita was actually something I expected, but that’s about where it ended.
After a quick stretch for the exceedingly long trip and the requisite bout with customs, we made our way to the bus that would take us to Haneda Airport and was able to “officially enter Japan”. Once we loaded our things we jumped on the bus and took off. One of the first things I noticed on the bus ride is that everything is structurally a mirror image of how transportation functions in America. We drive on the left side, they drive on the right. Even the flow of traffic is flipped. While small, this difference seemed to be emblematic of the way American culture and language functions vis-à-vis Japan’s as a whole. During the ride, I noticed a sea of compact, box-shaped cars whizzing alongside us through the various tunnels and up the hills that make up the utilitarian, grey landscape of greater Tokyo.