Lost in Japan
Some years ago, I embarked on a pilgrimage. At least, “pilgrimage,” is how I referred to it in the months prior to my departure as a means to incite a fair bit of jealousy among my friends, and, perhaps at that age, I had believed it to be somewhat true. Upon my return, I spoke very little of my pilgrimage, and now I feel some obligation to enlighten them--or at least to Austin who had asked on multiple occasions to see a photo but never did--of what was pretty much just a vacation. So, I suppose I’ll conjure up here what I can.
It was March. That meant the trees in my home county had sprouted the small purple or pink buds; that when I got up for school, I’d see the sun and not the moon; and that my childhood friend who moved to Japan would now be on his spring break. There were two months before AP exams, three weeks before Easter, and a sixteen-hour flight before I would enter Tokyo. I had departed from DC and had a layover in Toronto, and in that moment it felt that I was caught between the capital of my home and the capital of my heart.
Yeah. I’m a weeb. Weebs, like all peoples, are a product of their geography; mine was nothing more than a few schools, neighborhoods, and grocery stores conjoined around Interstate-95, just south of DC. My favorite genre had always been slice-of-life anime for it seemed to be a celebration of the existential dread that accompanies living in that sort of place. Somehow Japan had been able to find joy in what I hated. I loved Japan, but as a weeb. Meaning, I didn’t really love Japan at all. Or so had been conveyed to me from the disappointed and slightly repulsed faces of certain classmates and adults when they asked what my hobbies were and I said, “anime.” However, if I saw the real Japan, cherry blossoms and all, or had some life-altering encounter, then I would transcend from “weeb” to the more honorable “cosmopolitan.” I would be cool. That was my dream at seventeen.
I had never been to an airport before and I was basking in the experience. I would watch the people hurry by or eavesdrop on a conversation in some foreign language I didn’t understand, all the while convinced no one could tell I was a foreigner. That was how I was hoping Japan would go--that somehow I would sort of blend right in like I was doing in Canada, being an American. Not even before I boarded the airplane was I confronted with my foreigner status. I was waiting by my gate and saw outside the towering windows that it was snowing. How the hell is it snowing? It’s March, I thought. Oh, right. This isn’t Virginia. This is Canada. I’m in Canada. My flight was delayed, though only for an hour. It was heavy snow. It could have been canceled.
The line formed and boarding began. A couple speaking in Japanese stood in front of me. I figured that it would be as good a time as any to start soaking in the language, seeing as I would soon be in a whole country where I wouldn’t understand a single word. I was staying with a friend who could speak it, of course. It’s not like I was backpacking completely alone, but there would be no subtitles, so to say, and there was this sense of shame I felt at my inability to understand after having watched so much anime before coming. It felt like a betrayal, as though the person I had thought was my best friend, was actually way better friends with someone else, and that most of the joy and closeness I had felt with that person was nothing more than infatuation on my part and tolerance on theirs.
Not that the friend I was meeting was this rhetorical friend. In fact, I would have hardly considered him my best friend, but a good one with whom I had felt the lingering dissatisfaction of a friendship forced to end too soon. Although we had maintained a steady line of contact, I hadn’t seen him in person since the eighth grade. We sent each other photos of food and updates on which shows we were watching. Sometimes, in desperation, I would ask if he had a girlfriend, hoping he’d say no since I hadn’t had one either.
“Long line, isn’t it?”
The woman must have noticed me staring at her and her husband’s heads but smiled politely as though she hadn’t. The English surprised me. I could hardly manage a slight nod before the couple continued on with their conversation. The line moved forward. I found my seat, buckled the seat belt, and closed my eyes to fall asleep.
I did not fall asleep. There was a painful energy in my chest of pent-up excitement and unbounded imagination, and this burning in my eyes as though they longed to see where I was going. Really, it was that I had two cups of coffee at the airport and had been wearing my contacts for too long. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t watch a movie. I couldn’t read this book I had brought along because I was afraid I would wake my seat partner with the light, so I spent the whole sixteen hours sitting still, looking blankly forward at the airplane flight map, thinking about my awesome trip, all the schoolwork I would miss, and my friend on his way to greet me.
We landed in the evening to a slight rain. My eyes were soothed by the rush of cold air as I walked from the plane to the airport. I followed the signs to Immigration then Baggage Claim, where I waited for a generic black suitcase with an obnoxious green tag that my dad had tied onto the handlebar. Customs was a little intimidating in the apathetic way they spoke English but I managed. At the exit, there was a white wall with a design reading, “Welcome to TOKYO!” in red, followed by all the great icons of Japanese culture: ramen, Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms.
This was followed by a wall of people waiting to greet new arrivals. I was worried that my friend might not recognize me. My own memory of his face was blending with the anticipatory faces before me; all with widened eyes that glanced my way, then moved on to whoever was next. I gave similar glances until I stumbled upon a tall guy wearing a hoodie. I looked down. Shorts. This could only be Sean.