Tag Archives: Tokyo

It’s a Trap!


20150501_122557_Richtone(HDR)NOTE: I would like to point out that this is my fourth or fifth time trying to write this. Each time, I’ve attempted to write my thoughts out, I find out myself writing a completely different post. Here’s hoping this goes smoothly.

I’ve been fascinated with literature of all kinds ever since I was a little girl. I can’t remember the title of the first story I really fell in love with, but I do remember it was about a fox and his swamp band, and they ran into some trouble with some shady crocodiles. As simple as that story was, I remember thinking about that book for days. I imagined myself as the lead singer of the band, getting captured by crocodiles, and celebrating a victory with my animal friends. (I think Kindergarten Kat even had a crush on Mr. Fox.) At this point, I can’t remember how much of what I’m remembering is the actual plot or what I made up on my own.

For years after, I indulged myself many books, jumping from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to Artemis Fowl and anything written by Garth Nix or Brian Jacques or Ted Dekker. I read the classics in high school and fell in love with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare, but something was missing. Sometimes I picked up a book and thought, “Well, that was good, but it could have been better.” I wanted to do better. I wanted to pour my passion for reading onto a page. I don’t remember when I started writing. I feel as if it has always been part of my life, but the oldest primary document I have in my care is an Applebee’s napkin with some scrawling for some sort of character idea. A literary masterpiece? Not at all. It’s hardly passable for fanfiction, but that marks my beginning, maybe a moment in time where I vowed to write at least one great story, not part of a fad but something that would stand the test of time and become a literary masterpiece after I died.

I wanted people to see this world blossoming in my mind. But somehow, I’ve never been able to accurately describe it. It has always been beyond my ability. I have binders filled past their maximum capacity with ideas and sketches and short stories which completely unlock the mysteries of the inner-workings of my mind, but I could never share any of them. They’re not my vision. As I entered college, I found myself writing less and less. The passion still existed. I felt it itching, but many papers, jobs, people, and my own fatigue kept me from writing. My journals remained empty.

But about a week and a half ago, I went on a trip.


I’ve gotten that reaction a lot. During Golden Week, I traveled all over Tokyo in a few short days, but on my first day, I found myself in the Mitaka ward; it certainly wasn’t heavy on tourist traffic. I was just visiting the Ghibli Museum, home of the art of my favorite Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki. (If you haven’t heard of the name, perhaps you’ve heard of some of his work, including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle). We arrived two hours early on a bright orange bus called the cat bus. (Sadly, it wasn’t actually like the one from Totoro.)

As we neared the museum itself, the foliage grew bigger, thicker, and greener, and I felt as if I had shrunk to the size of a pixie. The greenery wrapped about a building sunken into the ground, the walls rising out of the depths into the clouds. Gazing down from above, a metal guardian eyed the spectators with cold eyes. Watching from below, eyes etched in glittering stained glass beckoned everyone passing to view their story. I longed to go beyond the metal bars inside, but we still had two hours to kill.

We found ourselves at a crossroads of some sort, many of the paths leading through social areas deeper into the shaded foliage. We glanced at each other, and with that look we decided not to care where we went. We chose a path, and we walked, the promise of a café, zoo, or aquarium beckoning us. We traveled through the park, the canopy overhead protecting us from the sun’s rays, past people riding bikes and school children in green and pink hats. We walked until the world become silent except for the crunch of stones underneath our shoes.

Red peeked through the trees. The wind carried the smell of incense and the pond’s gentle mist toward my face. Nearby a bell rang, summoning spirits to answer a traveler’s prayer. The trees overhead swayed with the breeze, moaning underneath the weight of their age and wisdom. I became vaguely aware of the spell cast upon me; I thought I could fight it, but as I approached the gates of the Benten shrine, any power I had disappeared. My feet wandered through the gates of their own accord, and I swear my heart stopped. I had practically found the gateway to Narnia, an ancient sect of the Templars, a gathering of Ents. I waited, and I waited for Howl to sweep me off my feet, for Princess Mononoke to fly through the trees, or a Laputa to sail through the clouds above the creaking trees.

The Magic

The Magic

Somehow, the magic never wore off. Every tree seemed a bit greener on my trek back. Every step I took hurt my feet a little less. Every breath made me feel more alive, as if I hadn’t really been living for a long time. This place was fantasy I lived in my mind. It breathed with me. It wrapped its spell around me and captured my heart. It imprisoned me, and I know that if I ever want to be free, I have to return. It’s just like that time spent wondering about that fox picture book.

Getting lost in a different world for the first time in a long time reminded me that my world still exists. It still wants to be told. It still has to be told, and it has helped me start writing again. Magic exists in this world. Miyazaki has certainly created it, and it has consumed Mitaka. And now I hold a piece of that magic.

And some of it followed me home.


What to Expect in Japan Part 1: Uhm…Well, Duh!


The Koinobori hanging up in a children’s park in northern Shinjuku.

Now originally, I wanted to write a single post with all the things one should expect to find in Japan ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, but as I started writing, I realized I had a lot to say and a lot more to experience on my trip, so why not a write series over the next few months while specific topics were still fresh on my mind?

I have just returned from a three day trip where I and two other American students tried to cram as much of Tokyo into those three days as possible. I have felt my feet crying out for mercy since the first day, but I could not put them out of their misery until I had quenched my thirst for adventure. I have been studying Japanese language and culture in formal classes since my first year of college (about 3 years ago), but no textbook, J-Drama, or anime could have prepared me for an actual trip to Tokyo. (Part of me expected to find at least one ward in ruins from some sort of monster attack, but that was not the case) But as I said, my expectations of Tokyo were almost nothing like the ones I had formed from behind my desk (or preferably in my bed with my comfy purple back pillow) as I read and watched about culture, pop-culture, language, and etiquette.

As I said, I returned yesterday, exhausted after a 10 hour night bus ride with no sleep (because I’ve never been able to sleep in moving vehicles). I felt the same sleep-deprived relief when I finally arrived in Tokyo via night bus a few days prior. The bus driver dumped us near Shinjuku Station and sped off with the rest of the early morning traffic. Naturally, one’s first thoughts of such an amazing place should be something along the lines of, “I can’t believe I’m in Tokyo!” I took one look around and thought, “What now?” And then a few moments later I added, “God have mercy on my soul.” (It isn’t abnormal for me to have melodramatic thoughts; they just usually translate into my shoving my face full of food instead of verbal eloquence.) We had an address for our hotel, our luggage weighing us down, and no idea of how to get where we needed to be. We wandered Shinjuku Station for several hours, and then we wandered northern Shinjuku for a while before we found our hotel. During that time I did indeed shove a McGriddle, hash brown, and cinnamon roll into my mouth.

I’ve spent many summers in San Antonio, Texas with my grandmother. I’ve been to Houston and Dallas. When I lived in Arkansas, I made frequent trips to Little Rock on my own. I’ve been lost in Memphis and St. Louis as well. How different could those places be from Tokyo? Seventeen years. That’s how different it is. I’ve been speaking English for 17 more years than I’ve been speaking Japanese. With my luck, I knew things would go wrong.

I got lost.

And more lost.

And so lost that I didn’t think it was even possible to get even more lost.

Finally, I tempted fate and stopped trying to think of whether or not it could get worse. And it still did.

On our final night in Tokyo, my friends and I planned to find a few stores (and try out the world’s first Japanese Taco Bell) in Shibuya. But guess what? We found ourselves in the middle of a Cinco de Mayo festival instead. Instinctively, I bought a watermelon smoothie and churro to hide my panic. After failing to understand the map, we decided to ask for directions. Again. We scanned the crowd at the crosswalk, looking for someone who seemed to know what they were doing. Finally, we spotted a young couple behind us. I sidled over to them and told them we were lost. The young man, Gak, stared us three American girls for a moment before pulling out his phone. I bit my lip as he hmmm-ed over the Google map on his screen.

“We’ll take you there.”

His companion, Mai, giggled and instantly began speaking to me about school, jobs, and the holidays. Amused by my Japanese, a smile never left her face even when I couldn’t convey exactly what I wanted to say. She thought it was particularly adorable that I wanted to buy a yukata for an upcoming festival. Gak even smiled a bit.

We walked for about fifteen minutes, and it ended with my group safely in front of the Oriental Bazaar. Gak sidled back over to Mai, and we thanked our newest guardian angel.

“Have a nice day,” he told us in a quiet voice.

And then I asked him how to say it in Japanese.

“よい一日を!”  (“Yoi-ichinichi wo!”) I called after them.

The duo erupted into laughter and smiles once more.

The day before, I met an American couple in the elevator of Tokyo Tower. We chatted for a moment after realizing we spoke the same language. The young man rolled his eyes a bit and chuckled. “Everything’s in Japanese here. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to order food.” My friend and I looked at each other for a moment trying our hardest not to grin too much, and we told them the words for fried chicken and fish. Our elevator ride ended, and the couple left.

Later that same day, my group settled down in an Alice in Wonderland themed café. We probably frazzled our poor waitress (who told us to call her Alice) with our questions, but we communicated enough to get our food and drinks. Another English-speaking group settled down next to us, and after several loud remarks about wasting money “paying for ambiance” (which is kind of the purpose of a themed café by the way), they fired English question after English question at Alice. When their English didn’t get through to her, they spoke even louder and louder. Alice stared at the group wide-eyed and eventually nodded in response to all of their questions before running off. After a while, another Alice returned in her place to explain about the custom cocktail menu in English.

I did as many “touristy” things as I could during my vacation. I toured a Sanrio store, explored temples, climbed Tokyo Tower, and snacked on freshly made crepes, but I didn’t come to Japan to “pay for ambiance.” I could write all day about the attractions and food and fashion, but experiencing culture is more than tasty fish and ancient temples.

As I sat in Akita Station completely exhausted from 24+ hours without sleep and one grueling night bus ride, I thought about my communication skills. Suddenly, an elder woman approached me and my friend. She told us something, and when we responded in Japanese, her face lit up. The conversation reminded me of some of my family dinners, topics weaving in and out of relevance. Houses, Zambia, my friend’s leg and its likeness to her owl wallet, something about this woman’s father and schooling. We pulled out dictionaries and laughed and winced. We tried. The woman laughed with us and lowered her head in a slight bow as she prepared to leave.

““よい一日を!”  I called after her. If you really, truly want to enjoy Japan, don’t just expect beauty, but expect kindness and patience and good conversations. Expect frustration and smiles and knowledge.

Things Are Seldom What They Seem


San Francisco at night.

I never thought I would have to perform the Macarena in Japan.

I wrote this statement in my journal almost a month ago, and the weirdest part about it is actually the latter half. Japan. I’m in Japan. (Forget the Macarena. It’s the only dance I’m capable of performing period. But I have been known to attempt the Cha-Cha Slide from time to time.) I can say it over and over again, but I can’t make it sound any less surreal. I started this blog to discuss my endless wandering and the countless times I’ve lost my way, but the dreadful irony of my first story is that I didn’t get lost on my way to Japan. Funny, right? I go on the longest journey of my life and don’t lose my way once.

I have been lost in the Dallas airport before. Ever since a dreadful experience on my way to Washington D.C. my junior year of high school, I have avoided that airport like the plague. (I think I’ve avoided Dallas in general. Even driving I can’t seem to get through it without the heavens opening up and unleashing a torrent of watery wrath upon my ancient Camry.) But now, I’ve realized that flying is a lot more enjoyable with huge layovers in-between flights. I had a particularly long layover in San Francisco which would give me time to eat (and study for my Japanese placement exam) and mentally prepare for my transition into a new culture.

I remember arriving at SFO half-dead, having traveled for four hours on a red-eye flight from Dallas, but of course, it was still a decent hour on the West Coast. Luckily, a janitor pointed me towards the international terminal before I strayed too far from the right path. (If her directions hadn’t been as specific as they were, I would be telling a different story now.) After arriving at the second security checkpoint of my trip, I removed my laptop and bag of toiletries from my carry-on, slipped off my shoes and coat, threw my phone, watch, and ring into a plastic bin, and followed the herd of people around me towards the front of the line.

Suddenly, the metal detector a few feet in front of me wailed. One of the men working security snatched a cell-phone from an older Japanese man’s hand as he removed the offending object from his pocket.

“See this? You take this OUT of your pocket.” He held it up for the herd of international travelers to see as we neared the front of the line. “The line will move a little faster if you take them OUT of your pocket! Hurry it up!”

“You, put your shoes back on!” another employee yelled. It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me.

Yet another employee took my laptop and toiletries from my hand and threw them back into my bag (completely disregarding everything I knew about airport procedure) before motioning for me to shuffle through the scanner. After the scanner’s silence deemed me non-hostile, I asked another employee if I could continue, and he responded with a grunt. I took my bags and did everything in my power not to run towards my gate.

The international terminal unfolded in front of me, a hodgepodge of people, exotic smells, and intercoms yelling at me in every language known to man. I found my gate with several hours to spare and settled down with my almost mediocre “Greek” pasta and “iced mocha” from the one open restaurant I discovered in the heart of the international terminal at 11 PM. Fellow passengers arrived one after the other, some excited others war-torn just like me.

I watched as the pilots and stewardesses arrived in small groups one after the other. Each person turned to face the awaiting passengers and bowed low. A string of Japanese sounded over the intercom and instantly, passengers began lining up. I listened to the instructions as a tiny woman repeated them.

Hi-kou-ki, I sounded out in my head. Yes. This is a plane. At least I know that. My two years of Japanese suddenly seemed incredibly inadequate when thrown into a real life situation.

Then much to my relief, the same woman repeated the instructions in English. On the plane, I could listen to anything in English (including an instructional video on how to navigate my way through customs upon arrive in Tokyo). The smiling stewardesses willing directed me towards the bathroom in English after my sleep-deprived tongue struggled to remember the Japanese word for “where.” After arriving in Tokyo Haneda airport, signs in both English and Japanese led my way through customs at 4 AM. I stumbled through a conversation in Japanese with the man issuing me my residence card as I tried to explain that I wasn’t seeking a part time job, and he listened to every clumsy word. I even chatted with one of the guards in customs as I waited for other employees to check my friend’s medicine. More English signs led me to the domestic terminal towards re-checking my bags, riding a bus to the other side of the airport, and through a security checkpoint for a third time this trip.

I also had the opportunity to chat with a fellow American exchange student who was heading to a different school. She spoke of the wonders of Japan and of what Nagoya night life had to offer. We exchanged names and majors, but after our few hours of camaraderie ended upon the arrival of the plane for Akita, she left my friend and I with a few foreboding words.

“Japanese people are polite, but they aren’t necessarily friendly.”

Suddenly, I couldn’t help but wonder what the smiling stewardesses on my flights thought about my incredibly inadequate Japanese, what the occupants of Akita thought of the small group of foreigners congregating around Akita’s pine-tree mascot in the lobby of the airport looking lost and confused, what my roommate thought of my asking about how to put my bed together. I thought about how much I stood out with my awkward lanky height and red hair and theatrically colorful cat-eye glasses. I felt my stomach knot with the uncertainty of the new culture before me, knowing full well that my book smarts could not compare to a real life experience.

But then my roommate and my suitemate brought by a group of four or five girls to my room and asked to chat with me on my second night at AIU. They inquired about Texas and America and jet-lag. We spoke of the usefulness (or lack thereof) of tumbleweeds, of the general cuteness porcupines and hedgehogs, of Miyazaki movies, of Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty), of the difference between thick and thin, and of our hopes and dreams. I helped them prepare for their English placement test, and they corrected my kanji for my Japanese placement test. We danced the Macarena and Cupid Shuffle at the AIU welcome dinner. My suitemate offered me her beloved Doraemon manga to practice my Japanese. I offered her my audio book of The Importance of Being Earnest. And they ooed and awed as I taught them quotes from The Princess Bride. We spoke to each other in broken English and broken Japanese, but we understood enough to share a laugh or two.

Most recently, a girl in Gospel Choir (yes Gospel Choir) with me asked if I could assist her with English homework, and I gladly obliged. After we finished our interview, she scurried off and retrieved a package of cookies which she gave to me to thank me for my ten minutes of help. Her voice trembling, she smiled a bit after I agreed to take a picture with her so she could show her mother.

“My English is not good, so I do not have many international friends,” she told me. “But I would like to be your friend.”

If I could have broken off a chunk of my heart and given it to her, I would have. How could I ever say no?