For me, Japan was the absolute.
Tokyo had becomea painted ideal in my mind, constructed from longings, television snippets, and figments from novels glued together over the years. Tokyo was my Oz, the one true location I’d long thirsted for, that when the opportunity finally presented itself to be a real possibility, the enormity and joy of how surreal it was became as lovely as finding out that cats can indeed carry conversations with humans and make omelets during their spare time.
Fortunately, although cats cannot talk to humans or make omelets (they do not even have the luxury of opposable thumbs, think of how messy it would be even if they tried to butter a pan with their padded paws), flight tickets no longer need to cost a kidney and I’d booked a round-trip ticket, lodging included, at a fairly affordable price that I could stomach without having to make too many drastic cuts in my everyday expenses.
Japan marked the crevasse as an escape into a modern Wonderland from the life that I had started to make as my own this year. It is 2013, I am no longer at the brink of tethering into a new life stage, I am already on that path, and the ball rolls still. I am, as of now, in my early twenties, female, back in Malaysia from the States for close to a year, tied to a 9 -5 job, and perhaps, like every other person in the world be they fresh graduate or not, still in the midst of figuring things out. It has been time to depart from the immediate ideals of graduation and my confrontations with reality has been unfolding to no avail. This year bears witness to a starker picture than any other has, and the road to navigate through trial and error hasn’t always been so clear or so giving.
I knew fully well that buying a plane ticket would not be the cheatcode to my twenties, no more than ThoughtCatalog articles or WikiHow would be. It wasn’t life epiphanies in convenience stores, or overcrowded train stations, or scenic shrines a la Lost in Translation that I was after. What I truly wanted was to shed some light over my wants and needs of current life, at its current time, with its current concerns. As far as things were beginning to unfold, it felt like I was fulfilling society’s quota of expectations, with little inclination about what I really wanted or how I felt. And man was that killing my vibe.
I wanted to be rendered small by distance, smaller even by unfamiliarity. I wanted the discomfort of being drowned amongst throngs of fine-boned, pale-skinned, extremely polite, peculiar yet excessively hygienic people I could not talk to, to be far from the comfortable device that is English and to grow beyond that set petri dish because I did not want to feel like a controlled substance. I wanted to go far away to think in a different environment, only to come back bearing gifts of that ubiquitous Green Tea Kit Kat so mysteriously adored by all who tasted it. And I was greedy; greedy to want to consume new stimuli that would gratify my senses in new ways I would not be aware of had I not chosen to travel.
With my well-worn Jansport backpack and Converse sneakers, all mementos from college, it felt as if I was going back to visit a new place but to also revisit an old one as I dragged my luggage around the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT ) on that one Friday in August.
My arrival to Haneda International Airport was greeted by pre-recorded public messages playing on a loop, the high-pitched voice a dim lullaby weaving in and out of my sleep-addled mind. The sky shone an azure blue through the windows despite it being only 5:30am. Was this really the same sun that was shining back home? I was happy to be unbridled by the burdens of my staff e-mail and the sky even proceeded to leak a little. The light drizzle felt like an appropriate welcome; somehow it always rains on all my big days.
Fine-tuning of sensitivities did happen progressively throughout the trip. It was inevitable – I was listening more and talking less. I acclimated to the fluctuations of Japanese speech and its intonations, a type of music I genuinely grew to enjoy listening to, even when I understood little. My status as foreigner afforded me only the automated response of “arigatou gozaimasu” to every interaction that occurred. It seemed like all those years in high school where I had accumulated a tiny heap of familiar Japanese words from animes and RPG games had gone straight out the window, but I did not feel vulnerable, even when reduced to lesser speech.
I met strangers from all over, most of whom were also possessed by a strong desire to travel and to learn more beyond where they originated. Connecting despite differences was fulfilling — I had some of the best conversations with some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met on that trip. Best of all, I was able to walk away without feeling inclined to add every single one of them up on social media because the conversations felt substantial enough to stand on their own without further validation. Although each day ended with weary feet, my mind would be bursting with the health and an assurance of my own being.
So did the trip answer any of my pressing concerns? No. Most of the time, I would be so focused on traipsing around the city with my backpack that there would be little time to ponder over matters deeper than where to go next. Yet I did return home with a written entry in my journal stating that although being abroad gives an automatic dose of courage, no matter the distance from established facts, one can hardly escape from one’s head for too long. So there was that.
During one night in Tokyo, after a particularly long and tiring day, I received a text message from a friend asking me how the trip was. “Does Japan feel like home?” she asked, curious.
It didn’t. There was no way I could say that it did, even in the glare of its beauty which seemed to surpass any negativities in the frame of one week I was there.
“No,” I replied. “But at least I feel like me.”
Hinging on the space of things to come, that realization in itself was the only conviction I needed to propel myself forwards.