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Deborah Lea

Arriving in Japan
By Deborah Lea
Mar 4, 2005 - 3:42:00 PM

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Scarcely more than a week after my law school graduation, I boarded a plane for Japan with two suitcases and a backpack. Never much skilled in the art of "advanced planning," I had spent that last week stateside trying to fit my life into those bags and a few boxes. That which did not fit in either was set out on the curb for passing neighbors to peruse. That I couldn't bear to part with was packed into three well-worn boxes.

Labeling those boxes was incredibly exciting to me. I wasn't simply sending them to Japan. I was sea-mailing them to a future version of myself - one who would, I hoped, on receipt of the boxes have already settled comfortably into a life I couldn't then imagine the boundaries of. What, I wondered, would the rooms I opened those boxes in look like? Would six or eight weeks be enough time to forget what I'd packed and be surprised by my old, life, to feel distanced from it? I had so many questions, and was thrilled by the thought of so soon living out their answers.

I remember little of the flight, my eleven hours between worlds, but gratefully recall the assistance of a Japanese-descended Angeleno who helped me sort out my entry into Japan. After I quickly but confusedly cleared Immigration, this young man helped me ship my luggage from the airport to my new home and saw me down to the subway where I first became acquainted with the Japanese rail system. My initial destination was a youth hostel in Azabu-Juban. It was cheap and well reviewed, more than enough to sell me on it, if I could only find it.

Armed with a largely incomprehensible itinerery, subway map and just enough Japanese to get me through a one-hour karate class, I boarded the train that seemed most apt to be headed my way. Karate-geared Japanese was of shockingly little use on the subway ride - though "osu!" certainly seems applicable in retrospect - so I spent the first ride trying to process all that inside and outside the car.

I surely felt conspicious amidst a sea of nihonjin (Japanese people), but no one seemed particularly concerned with me. Businessmen slept and schoolgirls texted their friends on their colorful assortment of cell phones. The oppressive gray reminded me almost pleasantly of the town I had been raised in. With little effort, I almost could have persuaded myself I was back somewhere in the States. The pervasive silence spoke the truth, though, distinguishing this markedly from any place I had ever been in the States. That so many people could be congregated in one place and make so little noise was unbelievable to me. An L.A. bus with only two passengers was easily more aurally overwhelming than this crowded car. So it was that the silence more than the language I couldn't understand informed me I was truly someplace else.

Navigating the subway did not prove easy after I exited that first train. Fortunately, three separate Japanese people along the way noticed my confusion and came to offer assistance, all independently. Now, I remember thinking, there could be no confusing that I was very far from L.A.

The first woman, consulting my sketched maps, took me out of her way to actually show me where I was to catch my next train. She led me down long halls through hoardes of people, up and down flights of stairs I would otherwise long have been lost in. She kindly waved me off and returned the way she had come. Watching her retreat, I wished bemusedly I had any way of repaying her unexpected kindness.

Her kindness was only unexpected because I had just arrived. Since that first awed day in Japan, I have had countless similar experiences, witnessed them and heard them spoken of. For all it is now less unexpected, its source is still somewhat instinctively baffling to me. Such kindnesses are so easily come by here, and so quickly - at least overtly - forgotten by their workers. This I will always appreciate, if, having now heard many of the conversations of my "polite" Japanese coworkers, I am increasingly nervous imagining conversations over beer later:

"Oh, I met this clueless gaikokujin chick earlier."

"Really? Was she cute?"

"Kinda, if you like weird. Mostly I helped her because she was disrupting the flow of foot traffic. Crazy gaikokujin!"

"Yeah, who understands them?!"

Since that first day, I have learned to understand I really still don't necessarily understand anything at all about Japan. Perhaps I have marginally greater wisdom than I did that first day, one which would have ended in tears were it not for the kind, unsought but welcome interventions of strangers. I now know the outward kindness does not always mirror its bearer's internal state. A few days in a staff room in Japan will make this abundantly clear even to the baby-steps beginner at Japanese. In spite of this, the fact remains these acts are kindnesses, no matter their motivation.

When I finally made my way to the hostel, I slept better than I had in weeks. My two days in Tokyo passed in a blur as I wondered, much as I had on the other side of the Pacific, what my new home in southern Honshu would be like. I had taken my first steps toward my true (if temporary) destination and tentatively discerned Japan was a place I could be happy living. But what, I wondered, awaited me at the end of my six-hour southward shinkansen trip? Tokyo had been but a brief introduction, a vacation. My real Japan was still beyond me, and as my trepidation began building, I could only remind myself I had begun this journey with hope. Or, at least, hope and insufficient money to really even qualify as money.

Boarding the shinkansen, I tried holding on to the hope that had enabled me to make so distant a move. With such an incredible landscape rapidly passing by just beyond the shinkansen window, it was mostly unproblematic ignoring my nerves, save for the unease I felt at the thought I could get paid to experience such breathtaking things. Something had to be wrong, didn't it? I was certain there was a piano somewhere poised to fall on me, painfully but comically balancing out all the good I had by then already experienced.

Happily, the piano never fell. I arrived in Yamaguchi on a sunny afternoon, my hopes once more nearly as bright as the beautiful day that greeted me.

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