We arrived to Tokyo during a typhoon. Rain was coming down hard and the city felt dark and daunting in our minds. Our flight from Vancouver was over 9 ½ hours long and we were exhausted when we picked up our backpacks at the baggage claim. By the way, our relationship with our backpacks could be another blog post altogether, but to summarize—even our ‘smartest’ packing has maxed out every square inch of the expanded version of the packs. Our first travel day with them was torturous with our shoulders and backs required our entire stay in Vancouver for recovery. Our friends from home, Mike and Colleen, moved to Tokyo with their two little boys about two months ago and they were so generous to welcome us to stay at their apartment in the ex-pat neighborhood of the city. We had screen shots of Colleen’s directions from the Narita Airport to their tower, but walking cold-turkey into an Asian city, sweaty and delirious and weighed down by heavy packs, it was grueling trying to digest the subway map and operate the ticketing machines. Multiple people’s willingness to help us gave us our first taste of Japanese kindness. Our two very long subway rides to get to the Hiro-o neighborhood gave us our first taste of how clean, quiet, and organized Tokyo’s subway lines are. However, our ignorance leading up to this trip had us anticipating the above-ground world of Tokyo as being totally chaotic and overstimulating. Every city has its own pulse and every city makes you feel a particular way, and after spending about three hours here, we started sharing aloud our reactions to this city as compared with our home cities of New York and Philly. Tokyo threw us for a loop—we actually had to mentally re-adjust in order to get in sync with the quiet rhythms of this metropolitan heaven.
When we arrived to Mike and Colleen’s place, we were all excited to be with familiar faces half-way around the planet, and they told us about their adventure of moving to this foreign city with two kids and having no Japanese language. They had a babysitter for the boys and they brought us to a cute hole-in-the-wall Yakitori restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant, they started enthusiastically interacting with the waitresses: “Konbanwa!” “Arigatou gozaimasu!” “Sumimasen!” Brian and I were flabbergasted hearing these unfamiliar sounds from Mike and Colleen! This one meal served as a fantastic crash course for us in the basics of Japanese greetings and cultural routines when eating in a restaurant.
Anyone who knows me well will know from this description why I am calling Tokyo a metropolitan heaven. When you walk down the streets of Tokyo, people are present, but people are quiet. People keep to themselves but they still smile at strangers. It seems as though no one would ever, ever, ever J-walk—people will wait at the street corner for the little green man to light up (even if it is late at night during a typhoon and there are no cars around!) The restaurant staff greet you when you enter their restaurant, and they thank you for every request that you make. The subway system makes so much sense—it all registered once we looked at the maps with rested eyes—and it is so squeaky-clean and (almost freakishly) silent! Everyone recycles. There is a palpable level of respect everywhere, from everyone towards everyone. Colleen explained to us that in Tokyo it truly ‘takes a village to raise a child’—once a child is 5 years old, he or she is expected to get to school alone! (Obstinate parents are seen as ‘over-protective’ and harming their child’s development!) There is an obligation of all adults to watch out for all children in the city. We witnessed tiny kids with neon backpacks walking down the busy city streets and riding the subways alone! This is all in such stark contrast to the generally fast-paced, irritable, impatient, often dangerous, and unapologetic part of the world from which we hail. It is also very far from the Tokyo that we pictured before we arrived (and as I’m writing this I now understand that these characteristics are cultural norms in Japan as a whole).
We are so grateful to Mike and Colleen for their hospitality and for teaching us appropriate manners for the rest of our stay in Japan—we pretty much smile and repeat “Thank you very much” in Japanese over and over again to people, but it’s been received with happy giggles and restaurant staff following us out the door and bowing to us as we leave (which makes our hearts swell with love for Japan more and more every time!)