Tokyo, Japan Study Abroad Reflection

By Christopher Wink | Nov. 29, 2006 | Tokyo, Japan

UPDATE Feb. 12, 2011: All my NBCU JYA writing, video and photo work has been transferred to subdomain japan.christopherwink.com.

I will go home on December 8, 2006. There is a ticket that asserts I will be traveling to a place unknown to the part of me who has lived in Tokyo for the last half year. As thin as paper is, some of it carries a great deal of weight. Some of the most important and powerful things of this world are just paper. My ticket will not change much, nor will it be remembered by anyone in just a few short months. Importance is relative.

I will be happy to find my native America again, but how remarkable my time here in Japan has been. I have seen a 50-foot Buddha and 500 miles on an $85 bicycle. I saw a sunrise from the head of a dormant volcano. I watched an auction of bids for 500 pound tuna. I ate octopus and herring eggs and river shrimp and pickled beets and nearly 60 pounds of rice. I will remember it all.

I will remember because I have taken 1,300 photographs, more than ten hours of video and journaled until my wrist bled. I will remember because it isn’t often that I get to see the dancing of a fall festival in Kichijoji or 1,500 tame deer eat out of my hands on the streets of Nara. I will remember because I might never again see Kabuki in Kyoto or business-suited drunks in Shibuya or Japanese children in Prussian school uniforms. I will remember.

Still, I will be so happy to find my native America again. I’d like to go where all things known and welcomed hide and wait to be reexamined, touched again by the fingers of someone who wants to remember. Like a dusty antique which has no value until it is too old to be recaptured.

Like the rice bowl for which I negotiated with a brown toothed woman near the hills of Higashi-yama in central Kansai. It, too, might collect dust, but when I find it again I will rediscover how she laughed and counted in German as she packaged my bowl, ostensibly to show me that she was well-versed in my native tongue. Oh I have seen so much, it seems.

It is true, I didn’t see the macaque monkeys in Tohoku or the togyu bullfighting in Uwajima. I didn’t stay in a ryokan, I didn’t visit an Ainu village. I didn’t fight the Yakuza, unchain the Burakamin or even watch the spread of American soldiers in Okinawa on a Saturday night. I won’t be coming home with a Japanese bride or Japanese fluency, nor will I have watched anime, read manga, or played video games. I saw a geisha, but I didn’t take a photo with one. I climbed Mount Fuji, but I never did get a clear view of its grandeur from below.

I didn’t go tuna fishing, bar-hopping or clothes shopping. I bought no technology and gave no prayer for the Royal family. I didn’t see a baseball game in the Tokyo Dome and who has the time to get to Hokkaido. I will leave without knowing what American fast food tastes like in Japan and will leave with knowing that I might never have the opportunity to come back to find out. Still, what I haven’t done should reason to return, not reason to regret.

Nevertheless all of what I might regret not doing will always hurt more than all of what I regret doing. Anything I might regret doing is just preface to a great story. I might regret getting on the train alone my first week here without knowing where I lived (except that I lived near a Denny’s). I might regret climbing Mount Fuji in late August with nothing but a sweatshirt and a broken umbrella. I might regret buying that rice bowl that might collect dust on my shelf and I might regret all the time I spent worrying myself about how I should best use the short and incredibly rare time I had in Japan. But it was that worrying that motivated me to do so much.

No, I didn’t see any of the Three Great Views of Japan: the Matsushima Bay on the Pacific coast outside of Sendai in the north, the small island of Itsukushima in the Inland Sea and the established sandbar of Amanohashidate near Kyoto.

But, I did see Tokyo on the back of a bicycle. I took three hour trips to the Tsukiji fish market. Once I spent $40 on fish and steaming green tea. I spent a night in a capsule hotel, awaking in a coffin of plastic with a television and a blanketed-doorway.

I spent a few good hours in a public bath, sweating and sponging and soaking with four or five Japanese men, as naked and sleepy-eyed as I was. I oohed at the Tokyo Tower at night and booed Tokyo Tower in the day. I saw sumo wrestling and bowed to aged taxi drivers. I saw more Japanese gardens and eleventh century temples than one person ever needs to see. I went to Yokohama and Kamakura and stopped in Nagoya. I had too much soy sauce and could never have too much tonkatsu.

Indeed, maybe I have been here too long. When I come to an intersection, I look right first, then left, then right again. The word ‘breakfast’ conjures up images in my mind of boiled eggs and rice, not scrambled eggs and pancakes. I have been here too long because I have started to instinctively greet people in Japanese and even I know how to fix a rice cooker.

I can get you to Akihabara to buy DVDs and I can point you in the direction of the Yasukuni Shrine if you want to join the ultra-nationalist movement. I have taken a full course load of Asian politics and can no longer remember a time when I didn’t know Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, or even Hu Jintao. Asia is senseless to me; I speak about its regions, Southeast or Northeast. I speak about the policy of these countries, but use their capitals in references: like Bangkok, Krung Thep, or Seoul or Manilla or, increasingly, Pyonyang. I have been here too long, indeed.

An airplane will take me in its belly and shuttle me along lines of latitude and longitude soon. She will take one of the world’s longest flights, ride above the world’s largest ocean, over the world’s most ubiquitous country and bring me to my world, to my home. I’ll take that ride and probably feel as if I am the only one riding those clouds at that very moment.

There is so much to see and I am experiencing one of the rarest, most precious, most important opportunities this world has to offer young people, but I’ve taken in too much. I need a break. I need to say goodbye to Japan for a time. I’d like to unpack all things of comfort and familiarity and put them on again, if only for a while. I’d like to go home.

Text as written on Nov. 29, 2006 in the Jiyugaoka neighborhood of Tokyo, Japan