One minute I was standing near the curbside, my eyes fixated on the flashing lights above me, my mind not quite processing the reality it was experiencing. The next I was following the seemingly endless crowd in a delicate yet intricate dance through the busiest intersection in the world. The sound of the people surrounding me was drowned out by my beating heart, which dictated the pace at which my feet moved through the street. Despite how present I was in the moment, it felt as though I was witnessing the whole situation from above, far removed from my physical body which was attempting to take videos, pictures, and enjoy it all at once in the narrow time it took to reach the other side. I found myself deliriously high on the neon lights, the ceaseless sounds, the bustling multitude, and in that moment I realized I would soon become an addict with no hope for recovery.
I’ve been privileged enough to travel far and wide; most adults I know would have never dreamed to have gone to the places I have at my young age. I have been graced by many cultures, and stories, and cuisines, and traditions that intertwine in unique symphonies that give character to each city and country I have visited. Not one of them is the same as the other, despite any similarities, and all of the experiences I managed to collect there have morphed into shimmering memories that now cavort in the corners of my heart, and show up in the most unexpected of times.
However, all of these memories (which I still cherish deeply) are currently overshadowed by the looming presence of a new sovereign in the realms of my mind. Without prior warning, I fell in love quickly and aggressively with an island located off the eastern coast of continental Asia in the Pacific Ocean, about 7,000 miles away from my current home. As of today, none of the experiences I have ever had even remotely compare to the 15 days I spent in Japan.
I’m aware that it’s extremely cliché to say that traveling to another country made a lasting impression on my psyche. I have always been the person who reads those articles about wanderlust and life-changing experiences abroad with abhorrence and skepticism. After all, what could someone have possibly done or lived through that made such an impact in their lives during such a short amount of time? How could a few weeks in a foreign city override the amalgamation of lessons they had learned in the years prior to that fortunate event? But I was foolish, and Japan made sure to show me exactly how.
A term that originated from traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, “Omotenashi” is a word eloquently used to describe the unique way in which Japan views and conducts hospitality. It combines every element of a service that can only be described as a “lifetime experience”, and erases the transactional relationship between the customer and the provider or host, exchanging it for an honest, respectable and thoughtful kindness. Although carefully calculated, it is almost always invisible, as the main purpose is to create an intangible encounter that makes the customer forget it is being intentionally served.
“Omotenashi” was ever-present throughout the entire trip in every single interaction I had. It was there before I set foot on the island, when the employee behind the counter did everything in his power (and succeeded) to get me onto the plane despite me arriving exceptionally late due to a flight delay. It was on the plane, when the flight attendant kept checking on the old lady that was sitting across from me, making sure she was comfortable despite her not giving any indication that she needed any assistance. It was there at the checkout counters at the grocery stores, where the clerks completed transactions using a little tray because giving the spare change directly into my hands would be rude. It was there when the waitress at a restaurant tried her best to explain the menu in English, despite the fact that she barely knew a few sentences. It was there when the sushi chef engaged in conversation with my best friend, and apologized deeply when I told him he had ruined sushi for me from that point forth. It was in the bars, and on the streets, and at the temples and shrines, in the old and the young, in the vibrant and the tired. These moments, no matter how brief or mundane, showed me a new way of looking at hospitality and service that I had never witnessed before.
Japan is well-known for being peaceful, calm and collected, and their reputation precedes them. Despite the crowds, everything worked seamlessly and effortlessly. Even at rush hour in the subway, people followed each other silently in an intricate choreography through the stairwells and onto the street with no pushing, no rushing, no unnecessary noise; it was almost as if they had planned it and rehearsed it years in advance just to show off when I arrived. The trains arrived seconds before their scheduled time every single time. Every aspect of day-to-day life worked like an orchestra whose tune was almost entrancing and impossible to ignore, and without you realizing it slithered its way into your psyche. Even a week after I left the country, I find myself sliding to one side of the escalator without thinking to let other people past, or placing my credit card on the counter rather than giving it to the cashier.
However, don’t mistake Japan’s willingness to serve and its exterior peace for innocence or naivety. Japan is cunning, calculated and sharp. There’s a method to their madness that has been simmering for hundreds if not thousands of years. Within their interactions and their busy lives, there is an unspoken agreement of perfection. Very little appears to happen by accident in Japan; the asphalt is immaculate, directions and instructions are clearly signed in a plethora of languages, the lawns are well-kept. Not a hair is out of place, despite gusty winds of multiculturalism passing through.
And the food…..Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, the food. From the quick bites I grabbed from street vendors, to the simple “tamago” sandwiches I purchased regularly from the convenience store, to the Michelin Starred restaurants I was able to visit; the passion they exhibit when using every ingredient to carefully curate and create a balanced and delicious dish doesn’t go unnoticed. Every detail comes into play to create a sensorial experience out of this word, no matter how many Yen you spend. Often times their dishes were adventurous to my western palate, but even then I never hesitated to put whatever was served into my mouth with the promise (and the knowledge) that it would be one of the best things I had ever tried.
It must be said that Japan isn’t without any flaws. I could write pieces on pieces on pieces about the double-edge of the swords I just presented to you, such as their unwillingness to step away from the roadmap they have designed. There’s also hidden demons in the corners of the street, disguised as red lights, innocent massages, and pretty women holding signs outside unsuspecting establishments. In their efforts to remain polite and hospitable, a lot of their intentions are lost in translation due to how nuanced and elusive their words can be. There still exists a lot of distinctions between the male and the female, be it in the workplace or other, and it’s reflected in their issues with sexual harassment. And of course, their habit of staring at foreigners for having different physical characteristics and often bluntly treating them as exactly that: foreigners.
There’s other more quotidian aspects of Japan that are not to my liking, such as their lack of trash cans (which is inconvenient at best), or their excessive use of plastic in groceries stores, or their smoking habits, or their insanely crowded public transportation. But as I stepped out into the morning breeze, the smell emanating from the Takoyaki restaurant in the corner and the songs of the birds breezing past swirling in the air, most of it was forgotten. There’s an energy to its cities (of safety, of comfort, of praxis), and they engulf whoever is lucky enough to reside within them with a light brighter than the neon signs hung over their streets. When you visit, you not only make relationships and connections with the people you met and interacted with, but you make it with the landscapes, and the temples and shrines, and the tourist attractions, and the local restaurants and bars. It doesn’t matter how brief, the memories of the times you made in each place will forever remain.
After this trip I realized that traveling is filled with injustice; no matter where you go, how long you spend there, or how different the culture is from your own, you come out unequivocally and irrevocably changed by the details you will never quite be able to recreate when you go back home. You will forever be haunted by the phrases “it was better when I was there” and “when will I be able to go back?”