The Everlasting Fight To Expand My Metaphorical Sight (Part 1)

Sun 05 December 2010

For the past few weeks, I've had the incredibly fun experience of living in Tokyo, Japan. I've already fielded quite a few questions as to the "why" I decided to do this, and in an effort to not re-type the story another hundred times, I figured I'd throw it down here along with my experiences thus far. This post is not programming centric; for those of you who follow the feeds for them, you'll have something soon, no worries.

The Backstory

Back in early November, I was at somewhat of a crossroads. I had recently come to the conclusion that I'm not a huge fan of San Francisco. I went ahead and checked out Chicago after that experience, and while it's an incredible city in its own right (and certainly one of my favorite US cities), I found myself wanting more. The funny part about traveling in the US is that for all its regions and supposed differences, at the end of the day you'll find largely the same things no matter where you go.

So I figured, alright, let's see what other countries have to offer. I applied, and (somehow) got my passport within a week. The question then became "where to?". I could've gone somewhere like England, France, Germany... the standard "alright, let's backpack for a year and see the world" destinations that are often suggested.

Thing is, I'm not like that. I enjoy jumping off the deep end; the way I see it, if I can survive the biggest changes and come out fine, then anything else in between is a cakewalk. This is largely one of the reasons I chose Tokyo/Japan; not only is the language incredibly different than anything I know at the moment*, but it is literally on the other side of the planet.

* though some would argue German is on the same level, if not higher, but I digress

One of the exciting parts of this journey is the path I've taken. I flew off the west coast, came to Japan, and will head to England and/or The Netherlands for about a week after this. From there, I fly back to the east coast. I will have fully circled the globe by the age of 23, under my own power. This has been a goal of mine for quite some time now, and it's really satisfying to see it come about.

Initial Life In Japan

The minute the plane touched down (after a lovely 12 hour flight) was interesting, because the culture shock hit me immediately. Not "uncomfortable, get me out of here" style, but definitely "wow, there is definitely something different here". I'll state up front that this has been evident the entire time I've been here, too; back home, I obviously grew accustomed to a lot of things, and the way they're done here is almost always radically different in some way. It definitely took some getting used to, but overall I've enjoyed it so far.

I rented an apartment a little bit outside central Tokyo, in an area known as Nishimagome. Trains into the central part from there are cheap, and take about ~15 minutes, so overall it worked out incredibly well. One part that I found very interesting was the feeling of being a minority - while I'm sure this comes across as potentially ignorant to some who'll read this, I've never actually felt that before in my life. I've lived in areas as a kid where some might say I was, but there was very little social divide in those scenarios. Being here incurred a language barrier and a customs barrier (i.e, society here has their own customs which the US doesn't necessarily follow), which sits on top of the typical social divides that we as human beings tend to exhibit in general.

For the first two weeks, almost nobody in Nishimagome wanted to deal with me. It was very fascinating; some appeared to do it out of a lack of understanding in regards to my home culture (and believing that I didn't understand theirs), whereas others seem steeped in what some have described to me as the "old Japan" ways. It's very evident the way foreigners are treated differently here; while I had read about it prior to arrival, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Getting over that initial barrier in the area I was staying in required a lot of careful conversations, as if walking on a field of landmines. At the time of this writing (about 3 weeks in), this has largely disappeared, but it definitely took some effort - a very eye opening experience indeed.

Cleanliness Is Godliness

The streets of this country are incredibly clean. To be completely blunt, living here for a stint has made me feel like shit as an American. Tokyo is an insanely huge city, and the amount of trash on the ground pales in comparison to that of New York City (NYC) or San Francisco (SF). I believe that a large part of the reasoning behind this is that you are literally looked down upon if you litter - in America, we're far too accepting of waste and littering.

The ironic part is that it's nigh impossible to find a trash can half the time here. Your best bet is to, hey, recycle everything at the bins you'll find around vending machines and food marts. On top of this, having this mentality around you the entire time brings a sense of wanting things to be clean to you. I'll say what a lot of Americans will deny out of pride: much of the time, in the US, I feel as though it's perfectly fine to litter because everyone else is doing it. Here, I can't bring myself to do it; the gravity of the act is taken to such a higher level here.

Say what you will about peer pressure and such; none of it will matter, because you'd be arguing the wrong point here. That scenario exists for many Americans, and trying to solve things through peer pressure dissolution efforts will go nowhere. Small scale deployments of the Japanese recycling system in the US could potentially work, provided people help to enforce and spread the effort around - I believe that many recycling efforts in the US largely fail because people are given the alternative. Having one right choice doesn't make you a communist, people, it just means it's the best fit for the task.

Convenience Is Underrated

I've spent a decent amount of time in just about every American city, and I can say with a relative amount of certainty that Tokyo easily beats them all out when it comes to convenience. As I type this, it's 3 in the morning, and I have no less than 4 different shops open and 20 different vending machines within a one mile radius, all giving me access to coffee, food, emergency supplies, and whatever else I need. NYC comes closest in this regard, but Tokyo's ability to provide at all hours is staggering, and still surpasses anything I've seen in NYC.

Cover Charges At Bars Are Annoying

Drinking in Tokyo can be quite an expensive task if you're not careful. Most bars and clubs you'll hit up require a cover charge (anywhere from $8 - $30, in my experiences), and if you're lucky that includes a free drink up front. While I don't particularly care about this, it inadvertently becomes a social barrier when out with a group - some people aren't always game to pay for two drinks when they're only getting one. In the US, the ability to just stroll into a bar and have a drink with a friend is a nice luxury when compared with here.

Public Transportation Rocks, But Should Stay Open Later

I find public transportation here to be a catch-22 of hilarious proportions. The ability to get just about anywhere in the entire country by public transportation is incredible. This has nothing to do with the overall size of the country, it's simply a situation where they've paid attention and built the necessary infrastructure. If trains were open past midnight, I'd call it a perfect situation, but having to choose to stay in central Tokyo or run to catch a train home around midnight can be quite the bummer if you're having a blast.

What's Next?

This is the first entry in a multi-part series, as I couldn't hope to cover everything I've experienced in the past few weeks in one post. In another week, I head to Europe for a stint, and then back into the US. Traveling is an incredible experience, and I'll continue to do this as long as it benefits me and helps me grow as a person.

Keep an eye out for the next entry in this series!