Journey To Japan

View from my seat on the flight over to Japan.

Midway to Haneda Airport, we happened upon the Tokyo skyline which inspired as much awe as it did confusion. There is no approximate American equivalent to rival the sheer scale of and sprawl of Tokyo—which contains 23 city-like “wards” and has the visceral impact of witnessing the vomited remains from a giant that eats cities. Like Los Angeles and Manhattan had a pretentious, yet impossibly efficient kid. Imagine a metropolis with no visible nucleus, gobbling up the skyline in each direction, for as far as the eye can see. THAT’S Tokyo.

An hour or so later, our group made it to Haneda Airport and I began to feel the fatigue from the 18hr flight fight with my infant-like desire to stay awake a absorb everything.  Because of a misunderstanding on the way over, I waited to do a currency exchange for Japanese yen at the airport without any dollars on hand, which was a mistake that could have trashed my trip. For a brief moment, I felt the gravity of being thousands of miles from home, money-less and hungry, and faced with the reality that there are very few ATMs that read American credit cards. In fact, Haneda Airport only has one. This was not what I imaged being in Japan would be like. Finding that one ATM suddenly felt like life or death and in order to “live” I had to use my atrophied Japanese skills. After a series of mishaps and earnest but inaccurate advice from the airport staff, I eventually found the ATM and got some much needed yen and food. While unfortunate, forgetting my cash forced me to start using Japanese regularly, something I’d do for the remainder of the trip.

This is a street in Isemiya-cho in Matsue. The city lights up at night.

We eventually boarded our Air Japan flight to Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, the birthplace of Japan’s myths and many of its unique cultural practices.  The hour long flight was pleasant enough and I found the service excellent. I also enjoyed the fact that matcha (powdered green tea) was a drinking option. When our caravan touched town in Izumo Airport, we were greeted by our hosts from Matsue–a group of nearly 50 comprised of families, government personnel, and volunteers. They welcomed us with large signs, larger smiles, and a seemingly endless amount of enthusiasm for such a late night reception. It’s in these first of a series of interactions with our Japanese hosts I realized that my default level of politeness, deference, and respect couldn’t nearly match theirs. We were tired. They had to be tired. We showed our fatigue clear as crystal. They cheered and waved banners. This disparity in hospitality is something that I had often heard about from Americans who visited Japan, but really couldn’t grasp it properly until I experienced it for myself. It was truly overwhelming.

Official photo with the TOMODACHIs and Matsue hosts.

After about 15min of hugs, handshakes, bowing, and official photographs—these too are a thing—we were paired with our host families to return with them to Matsue.  I was warmly greeted and spirited away by the matriarchs of the “Suzuki” family—the wife of the patriarch “Natsuko” and her mother-in-law “Setsu”.  I instantly felt a connection with the two: Natsuko was attentive and kind-hearted, and Setsu was lively and down-to-earth. On the ride to Matsue, I was mostly quiet, taking in the enormity of being in Japan with my new caretakers and reflecting on the day which began in New Orleans and ultimately ended up with me being in another country, on the other side of the planet.  There was also my somewhat irrational fear of the oncoming traffic.

Mid-drive, I found out that we were headed to an area called Fukutomi, a tight-knit, industrial community in Matsue that sits between the Ohashi River and Lake Nakaumi on the eastern edge of the city. Natsuko bobbed and weaved adeptly through the narrow, snake like streets of Matsue with a precision likely cultivated from years of muscle memory.  Before I knew it, we were pulling up to the Suzuki household—a charming, 2-story Japanese style home surrounded by a forested slope made up of various plants, vines, and of particular note, chestnut and bamboo trees. Once we exited, I grabbed my things and followed gingerly behind my hosts, juggling useful Japanese phrases in my head, and praying that all my years of study would prevent me from being a complete slob and inconvenience on the Suzukis for the next 10 days.

The bamboo and chestnut trees outside of the Suzuki residence.

Stepping inside, I bowed and announced my presence by saying ojamashimasu (which roughly translates “pardon the disturbance” and is the standard greeting for entering someone’s home on the first time). The genkan (the traditional Japanese entryway) was larger than I had expected and transitioning from my outdoor shoes to my indoor slippers wasn’t as hard as I thought—the trick is stepping inside backwards from one shoe to the other. Entering the main artery of the house, I was greeted by a tall, slender man with a worker’s tan and steady, yet kind eyes. He introduced himself as “Yutaka”—the patriarch of the Suzuki household. I thanked Yutaka for his family’s hospitality and apologized for my inconvenience and informed him that I spoke Japanese, to his visible surprise and relief. In what I would come to understand is his usual manner, Yutaka shrugged off the need for formality and after the exchange of a few pleasantries, he excused himself. Eventually, the two daughters of the family, the elder “Rin” and younger “Haruka”, returned from work and college respectively. They both met with me and shyly introduced themselves in giggling, yet solid English—which wasn’t entirely a surprise as Rin had emailed me weeks before in a written per-introduction.

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Daigo Suzuki’s room.

After a short orientation and tour of the Suzuki’s home, I was shown to my room upstairs and allowed to put my things away. Employing the same trick from the genkan, I backed out of my slippers and onto the tatami covered floor and carefully observed the room. The ceilings were lower than what you might find in an American style home, but not so much that you’d bump your head—you do that on the way in. It was a spartan, well kept room belonging to the eldest son, “Daigo”, who was away studying at the prefectural university in neighboring Okayama—a place nerds might know as the prefecture where the pioneering “harem-anime”, Tenchi Muyo, takes place. The room featured two large sliding windows for air (A/C isn’t common in Japan), a sturdy pine desk, and a bookshelf with what appeared to be lots of Japanese academic texts. Being rather minimal myself, I found the setup perfect.