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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2010-12-01 There and Back Again: A Trip to Tokyo

Entry Image
Not the best photo, but the only one I got of the three of us (Ariel, Lucian, and I) in Ikebukuro

At Doshisha, there is a four-day weekend break towards the end of November. Early on I decided to use this time to go to Tokyo and visit some friends: my fellow Japanese majors Ariel and Lucian at Aoyama Gakuin and Rikkyo University, and maybe—hopefully—my old roommate Yuika and friends who studied abroad at Linfield last year from Yokohama’s Kanto Gakuin University.

Until the day I left, it seemed I might as well go to the moon as soon as go to Tokyo by myself! When I said “Ittekimasu!” (I’m going) to my friends there I was almost in tears with a sudden nervousness. As I closed the door behind me I stood on the doorstep for a moment and made a resolution, General MacArthur style: “I shall return!” Then I set off into the crisp autumn night.

That Friday, Ariel and Lucian had classes, so I would be alone my first day in Tokyo. I made a list of three places I wanted to visit to keep me busy: Tsukiji fish market, thanks to frequent recommendations from my very first Japanese teacher at community college; Yasukuni Shrine, because of my interest in things WWII; and Meiji-jingu, because I like shrines in general and the Meiji Emperor in particular is one of my favorite historical figures.

I arrived at Shinjuku Station around six in the morning and saw Tokyo for the first time, tall grey buildings under a grey sky lit with a pale sun. I made myself presentable in a bathroom and set off for Tsukiji, and immediately recognized the smell of fish when I got off the train. I must have looked as hungry as I felt, because a man in a stall selling gleaming cutlery addressed me in broken English, “Miss, I recommend you go to place with most people. It is best food.” I thanked him and waited for a seat at a tiny shop where the line went out the door and down the street. It was well worth the wait! The delicious raw salmon, tuna, and uni (sea urchin) melted in my mouth like butter.

When I was younger I had a great interest in the Pacific theater of WWII. My grandpa fought in it as a flight technician on an aircraft carrier, which was narrowly missed by kamikaze, though that is the extent of my knowledge of his experience—every time he tried to talk about the War, he’d break down in tears. His stories died with him, and I was left to wonder. I read a lot of books, and it was in one of them I first heard about the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, the place where the Japanese war dead are enshrined as deities.

A drizzling grey rain was falling when I arrived and stood gaping up at the largest and ugliest torii gate I’d ever seen. I approached the main hall and watched the people—all of them men past middle age, not old enough to have been in the War, but old enough to have grown up in its lingering shadow—coming up to pray. I had to wonder what their thoughts were. Judging by the stares I was getting, they wondered the same about me. I sat under a shelter for a bit, thinking, while the suited men around me flicked their cigarettes and talked business and didn’t notice how pretty the rain was, dripping like tears from the roof.

After Yasukuni, Meiji Shrine was a breath of fresh air. I relaxed immediately on seeing the beautiful tori gate entrance and the long forested path to the shrine which gradually makes one forget bustling Harajuku outside. Happy to be somewhere nice again, I washed my hands and mouth at the entrance to the shrine and tossed a coin into the offering box, clapping my hands the way the Japanese do to get the deity’s attention, though secretly I prayed to my own God who doesn’t need money or clapping to hear prayers. Being very tired out by now, I sat on a bench and simply watched people.

The best thing I saw was a young family dressed in kimono, their little 3-year-old girl in a bright red kimono. She hid behind her daddy’s hakama skirts and dashed away giggling whenever he tried to turn around and catch her. Their play was made a graceful dance by the traditional Japanese clothes. I went up to the couple and asked for photos, and the tiny princess said, “konnichi wa!” to me, and “sayonara!” when I left. Ohh!

At last I met Ariel at Aoyama for dinner. It was strange to meet her there in Japan! She took me to an Indian curry restaurant, and we lingered over steaming naan bread and chatted until quite late. Walking back to the train station, Ariel pointed out a foreign man striding by. "Dan!" It was our fellow Linfield classmate who'd been at Aoyama since April. "I'm going to chase him!" I said, and ducking through the crowd I at last succeeded in grabbing his elbow. "Dan!" His face was priceless. "..........." "It's me, Leah, from Linfield!" "......Yeah I know but....hey wait....you're in Tokyo....??" I hadn't been able to contact him or Chloe, the other Linfield student who'd started at Aoyama with him, and so I hadn't expected to meet him at all. Even a big city can feel like a small world, I thought.

The next day I got up early and went to Yokohama to meet the KGU friends I hadn’t seen for a year. I stepped off the train, and a cold, fresh wind hit me as it blew through narrow, busy streets. Suddenly a familiar face appeared, and Yuka was running toward me, “LEAH!! HISASHIBURI!! (long time no see)” We collided in a happy hug. Misato, my old conversation partner, followed. Together we walked from the station to the KGU campus, to meet Yuika and Miku. Today they were busy; their class was participating in an English communication contest. Golden sunlight spilled into the empty classroom, and we spent the hours sitting on the floor preparing the speeches for the contest. It was as natsukashii (nostalgic) as a Japanese drama—working on a project with the four of them was like being back at Linfield again, back to when we were together every day, back to the happiest semester I’d spent at college. After the contest, Mitsuyoshi came up to say hello. I hugged him without thinking (the Japanese hug even less than I do; hugs with the opposite sex really only mean one thing) but he laughed, saying he was ureshii (glad) to hug such a pretty girl. Yes, he was the same Mitsuyoshi as ever.  When at last the time came to say goodbye Yuika took hold of my hand and wouldn’t let go, tears filling her eyes. “There will be other times,” said Misato calmly, “This is only the first time we’ll meet Leah in Japan.” “Of course, of course!” we said. But we both seemed to know with the distance and Yuika’s rigorous job-hunting, meeting again would be difficult.

The next day, Sunday, I met Lucian at Asakusa, and together we wandered around the crowded environs of Senso-ji Temple. We spotted a lovely Shinto bride and groom in a glittering rickshaw, a performing monkey that made me quite depressed, and a group of Waseda University students who were offering free English tours of the temple in order to practice their English. They were a fun group of kids and we ended up talking mostly in Japanese and about many more things than just the temple! Later Lucian and I bought chocolate-dipped bananas and sat down in a little park. The ginko tree above whirled down yellow leaves while the famous five-storied pagoda rose into the blue sky before us. We talked for a few hours about our experiences so far. Lucian seems to have had better luck with making Japanese friends. “The truth is, I don’t feel foreign here at all,” he said.  Of course you don’t, I thought, you who are more Japanese here than the Japanese themselves! It made me smile.

Shadows began to lengthen, and we met up with Ariel again, and the three of us went to Ikebukuro to get a glimpse of Rikkyo University and find some dinner. In the restaurant with them I felt dreamy again. The three 2012 Japanese majors, together in Tokyo…it somehow seemed so grown-up, like the first time I’d gone to a restaurant without my parents. We were all growing up. Who knew how we’d change in the coming year. Lucian had admitted to not knowing Ariel well. “Oh, who cares,” I’d said, “We need to look out for each other. Next year we’ll take classes and graduate together, after all.”

At about 9:00 we said goodbye, with promises to meet again in Kyoto. I had a few hours before my overnight bus left at 11:00, but I got horribly lost in the endless station for much of the time. Frustrated, exhausted, alone, sagging under my heavy backpack, I began to cry as I wandered through the streets surrounding the station, searching for the overnight-bus stop. I had gotten lost a few times on my trip, and it never upset me, but now I just wanted to go home. As I walked down a narrow dark passage I noticed a man loitering there in the shadows. He leered around a cigarette and clicked his tongue as I walked by as one might call to a cat. I dashed out of there, and, angry now, my tears disappeared and I felt renewed energy; after a few minutes I found the bus stop easily. I got a call from my French friends Jeremy and Valentine, who had spent the weekend at Tokyo Disney and were taking the same bus back to Kyoto, and who were lost too. The mission of finding them and bringing them to the bus stop cheered me up considerably.

The morning came agonizingly slowly. I felt sick and could barely walk when I got off the bus. But the cold Kyoto air refreshed me, and soon I was fitting my key into the lock of the dorm’s front door. “Tadaima!” (I’m home). Tokyo was amazing; I met scary people and kind people, made new friends and met precious old ones, but yappari (in the end) I was glad to be “home” in Kyoto!


~Leah Sedy

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