I carried around a sense of melancholy during my first two to three days in Tokyo. There is something about being on the outside of a society that is very familiar and very foreign at the same time that is both thrilling and disorienting. You observe as smartly dressed Japanese women engage in animated conversations on the metro, as a father and his young son play inside a shopping mall elevator, as young people tease each other in a restaurant. You’re in a thoroughly modern, advanced country, perhaps the most developed in the world. And yet language remains a barrier. You observe the tumult of everyday life in Tokyo, on the outside peeking into the lives of others, and feel a twinge of sadness.
Luckily, the Tokyo blues faded, and I eased into my very foreign surroundings. When my traveling companion and I got lost- which happened frequently- we asked for help as best we could, with smiles and gestures, and people obliged us with their own smiles and gestures. It was not uncommon for people to begin walking us to the metro platform or restaurant we were looking for, to make sure that we were on the right path. I never encountered such courteousness in my travels in Europe, and if in Mexico a man offered to help me find my way, I would have become deeply suspicious. One particular joy of traveling in Japan was the security that pervades life there. Women at cafes leave their purses at their tables while they go to the bathroom, trusting that they will be there when they return. Leave something behind at a restaurant? Go back to retrieve it, and it will be right where you left it.
I also couldn’t help but notice the stunning lack of inequality in Japan. There are no visible signs of poverty or suffering, no shantytowns on the outskirts of town as one enters the city from the airport (as in Paris), or within the city. Streets were clean. And yet if Japan sounds like a quaint, Alpine village of quiet people who keep their heads down…go to a baseball game. Or a karaoke saloon. Or a bar. The Japanese know how to let their hair down.
From the neon lights and endless skyscrapers of Tokyo to the shrines and temples on every corner in historic Kyoto, Japan took my breath away every day. It also doesn’t hurt that I was there during sakura, the brief window when cherry blossoms bloom all over the country. The sight of those pink-white flowers every day was a constant delight.
As my trip to Japan becomes more and more distant in time, certain memories will fade. But my positive impression of the country- the kind people, the sounds, the sights- will not fade any time soon.