Saturday, May 3, 2014

Upon Landing in Tokyo

My first day in Tokyo has been eye opening.  It is such a fascinating place, and the Japanese are such fascinating people.  

Just like my previous visit to Japan, the moment I got off the plane, and made it through customs, I came to a stunning realization that I am no longer in Korea, and I immediately felt like an outsider.  This time, I expected it, but sometimes, when things are so different than what you are accustomed to, expectation doesn’t adequately prepare you for what you experience.  

During the flight, I was rather tense, because it was to land at 11pm, and I researched the subway system to learn that the last train at the airport departed at 11:50.  I did not feel like trying to get a bus, because of the price, and my lack of knowledge of Tokyo.  I knew that determining the correct bus to take, while working through a language barrier would be difficult.   And neither did I feel like taking a taxi, which on top of all that I mentioned about taking a bus,  would have been extremely expensive, a lot more so than in Korea.  By far, the easiest directions that I received were via the subway, and even that was a little daunting.

Before leaving, I seriously asked my christian friends to pray for me while traveling.  I felt like it would take a miracle for me to make it through customs on time (first world problems). 

I received a tip from a good friend of mine, Greg, an experienced traveller, who explained, when in a hurry to be somewhere upon landing, request a seat in the front of the plane, which is what I did, which resulted in the pretty Korean lady working the check-in for Asiana Airlines informing me with a smile that that is where I would be sitting.  

Through all the tense feelings, I was able to receive a window seat, and I was taken aback by how enormous Haneda Airport was.  What stood out was an enormous neon sign on the building that read, “Tokyo International Airport.”  The building itself looked massive under the night sky, and what also stood out was through the windows on it, and through the dim lights that shined through them, there was a certain calmness in how the small silhouettes of the people were moving.  The airport certainly reflected the personality of the nation it represented.  I had a moment of calmness as I was observing it through the window of the plane, as we were taxing to the terminal.

The plane was fifteen minutes late landing, apparently because it was a busy day for the airline industry in Japan.  At that point, I felt like there was no way I would get through, but I was going to try anyway, because miracles do happen.  I had friends who said prayers for me, after all.  The Japanese friends that I made on the plane also urged me to go as fast as possible as we said our goodbyes, and they made a way for me to be one of the first people out of the plane, but to make matters worse, I had to take a shuttle bus to customs, and I ended up sitting next to them, after thinking I would have been far ahead of them.  

Customs was excruciatingly slow, as always, but as I always do, I completely filled out my customs and entrance cards on the plane, and a Japanese official checking them noticed that I did, so he directed me to an express line.  My bag was one of the first out of baggage check, and I made it through rather quickly.  Still, I was thinking there would be no way that I would be able to hop on the train on time.

I noticed that the tracks were rather close to the exit at customs, and that people were racing to them, so I began to do the same.  I noticed a nice-looking older Japanese couple enter an elevator to the tracks, so I quickly jumped in with them.  As soon as the door opened, there was the train.  I thought, “Thank God.  I made it.”  

The Tokyo subway system is a lot more complex than that of Seoul, and the guest house was rather far from the airport, so still I was tense.  The moment I entered the train, I was hit rather hard by the fact that I was an outsider in an extremely unfamiliar place.  I know absolutely exactly two words of Japanese, and that is “Konichiwa, (hello)” and “Arigato Kojaimas (Thank you very much).”   I can read absolutely zero Japanese, and I know very little about the culture, so when I entered a train filled with Japanese people with no Koreans in sight, I realized that I was the only westerner around, so the intense feelings grew.  

But during that subway ride, which was above ground, I was immediately taken aback by the neighborhoods that were visible.  I saw houses which were really close to each other with dimly lit lights on streets that looked uniquely Japanese, even at eleven o'clock at night.  I was able to make out a graveyard in the dark, and if you’ve never seen one, they are rather different and interesting, and they have a certain beauty to them.  And once again, I noticed a certain calmness and serenity in the dim lights of the houses, and neighborhoods, to a greater degree than that of the airport.  

My only thought was to make sure I was going the right way, and in a trip that had two transfers, I was really worried about taking the right train, which at the second transfer, I failed to do.  I immediately realized it after the first stop, so I immediately exited.  After doing so, I realized I exited the last train of the evening.  I refused to pay the high cab fare to get where I had to go, so that was out of the question. I quickly decided to take my chances, and walk away from the subway station until I found a hotel to stay at for the evening.  Needless to say, the tense feelings didn’t go away.  

I didn’t have to walk far until I found a hotel that was beyond what I had expected, better than any of the places I reserved, and wasn’t that much more expensive.  I really believe those prayers helped. 

Again, I stated that I am a total outsider here, and I have embraced it.  The only time I’ve ever felt this way in my life was during my previous visit to Japan.

In America, we have chosen a particular word to coin an entire group of people who have black hair, white skin, and small eyes who are either from east Asia, or are descendants of people from there.  We call them “Asian.”  Sure the Japanese, Koreans, and the Chinese are “Asian,” but I am starting to dislike that moniker, because the only things that are remotely similar about Korean, Japanese, and even Chinese cultures are some of their physical features, and the fact that they use chopsticks.  

Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, among all of the other cultures that are are associated with the moniker are so vastly different, that they are each races in and of themselves.  And even among what is seemingly similar, they have minor nuances that make them totally different.  I propose that people should stop saying, "I'm Asian," and go back to saying, "I'm Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Veitnamese/etc."  White people may not understand the differences in the cultures, but that doesn't matter, because that doesn't change the fact that they each is vastly different from the other.  

More on that in a later post, but my point is that Korean and Japanese culture are totally different.  And the even bigger point is when I came to Japan for the first time over a year ago, I thought I could identify with Japanese people in the same way I sort of do in Korea, because I had the American mindset that we are all “Asian,” but that is not at all the case.  For me, being there is like being a dog in a world full of cats.  The cultures are totally different, and I have absolutely no basis of identification with them. 

With that being said, I am excited to be here.  I am blessed, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the next post, which should be soon.  Here’s to a great stay in Tokyo, and stay tuned for more.  

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