I write to you from Japan, where I am captivated by one thing after another. The plane ride, on a Japan Airlines (JAL) 777 plane, might have been the best economy plane ride of my life. The seats had ample legroom, even for me, and the extra inch of width was really noticeable. The lack of a middle seatmate, the abundant choice of movies and the truly wonderful service didn’t hurt. The flight attendants were so friendly, and the meal (chicken teriyaki with rice and assorted sides, including miso soup) was the first decent airplane meal I’ve ever had. There were frequent drink offers, from green tea and water and juice to wine and beer, although I didn’t partake. The flight attendants even left toothbrushes in the bathroom (larger than usual, by the way), which I thought was a nice touch. The wifi, at $19, was slow but functional, and worth it for the long flight. I used it to finish booking accommodations for my trip. My Aviator jeans were comfortable throughout, and my merino t-shirt felt fresh even by hour 10. My Tortuga Outbreaker backpack, although stuffed to the brim, feels as light as a feather on my back, and is perfectly organized. I love that thing, especially when I pass people on the escalator who are lugging rolling bags that look like bricks.
The first thing I notice about Tokyo is how massive it is. It’s like flying into New York but so much more spread out. Endless lights at night. As a New Yorker, most places feel small in comparison. I’ve been known to describe Philadelphia, the 5th largest city in the us, as “provincial”. But Tokyo is big. Yet it doesn’t feel rushed, like any other big city I’ve ever been to. It’s bright, but quiet. It’s sprawling, yet orderly. Everyone is efficient but civil. Kind of what I expected, yet there is a remarkable diversity of style and manner for such a homogenous country. People carry themselves with pride and dignity. It’s so different from home already.
We head towards the real reason I wanted to come to Japan so badly: the trains. One arrives promptly, even a minute ahead of schedule. The silence on the train is deafening. Aside from the occasional cough and sniffle (I’m rethinking those masks), the only sounds are the smooth wheels and announcements, and maybe some chatter from the few other gaijin (foreigners) on the train. What a vast difference from the frenetic energy of most subway systems I’ve taken. It’s very contemplative. Lights pass outside, apartment houses that I want to peek into but pass before I get so much as a glimpse. The rush of the outbound train whistles by, breaking me from my thoughts. I catch a strange sight: go karts, apparently a popular attraction. The train smells faintly of stale cigarette smoke. We sit and try to avoid making eye contact with anyone.
What did people do before phones, I think, while reveling in the fact that the ride is so smooth there’s no need to hold on. I see an older man reading a magazine and I try to imagine everyone following suit. I wonder whether the prevalence of phones contributes to the quiet, but I think it’s just the norm. I will write more on this, because I think about it a lot. I sometimes look around on a train when I’m by myself, hoping to catch the eye of someone cute, or just have a moment of acknowledgment with another person, but more and more I find that every single person is glued to their screen. Is the game you want to set a high score in or the instagram feed you’ve already scrolled through really more important than looking at the world around you, than interacting with the people and places you pass by? I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but it really makes you think. I question whether we can sustain our dependence on technology while maintaining a baseline of one of the most basic human necessities: interaction with others, love, compassion, connection, whatever you want to call it. I guess we’re going to find out, but I’m skeptical. Something has to change, we have to rebel in some small way.
After checking into the hostel (which is very clean and modern, even if the duvet doesn’t cover my whole body and the shared rooms are noisy) we wander around trying to find a restaurant. It’s here that the language barrier is most pronounced, as we have a hard time deciphering even what type of restaurant some places are, and without phone data yet, we are at the mercy of our intuition. But eventually we stumble into a little teppanyaki counter shop and eat okonomiyaki and some lotus root right off the teppan. The cook is friendly and the lady next to me strikes up a conversation in perfectly passable English. After some pleasantries, she starts talking about Hiroshima and the war, to which I don’t know what to say, but she winds up expressing that okonomiyaki comes from there and that she’s so happy we can sit side by side in this shop eating a delicacy from Hiroshima. She and her husband and daughter say bye as they walk out. I think Jake and I will have a lot of reflecting to do when we spend some time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki next week. Not that we don’t already, but even more.
I will think on it over the next couple of weeks and say more then, when I have fully-formed thoughts.
Goodnight, from a bed in a Tokyo hostel,