Late at night, when the sun has set in the west, and the shadows creep deeper into the alleys and corners, I grow restless. My apartment is far too small to contain the thoughts I have, and so I’ll go for a walk. Despite the late evening, it is not so late for a walk. For me, no time is better for such exercise than when the air is crisp and the low breeze snaps at your face. And the dark can keep you hidden. Not that anyone’s out looking for me.
I don’t bring anything with me when I go. To bring anything is to burden myself with worry. Maybe I’ll lose something. Maybe I’ll have forgotten something important back at the apartment, and I’ll be on the other side of the city by the time I notice. I bring nothing except my keys and train pass.
I won’t buy anything.
A Japanese hour is frequently scrutinized by me. Living in this society, I have begun to learn that every hour can be parceled into productivity, if done correctly. I never arrive late, nor on time. Wherever I go, I’ll do so as early as I can. And I will leave early too. To be on time is late. To be late…is unforgiveable.
But tonight, perhaps there’s no opportunity for me to be late, as I have no idea where I’ll go. Some parks might be open, so long as there’s streetlight to walk under. Otherwise I’ll just walk until I get tired and then maybe I’ll sit for a moment.
But first I should stake out my walking grounds.
The station near my apartment is still busy. No matter what time of day, somehow, there are always people needing to be somewhere. The trains eventually close, but that’s three hours away from now. I’ll be fine. I don’t plan to be out too long.
Swipe. Beep! Climb the stairs. So many stairs. Japan is a platformer society. It’s reflected in its buildings, in its combinis, in its teachings, and in its videogames. There will always be another floor to a shop you visit. Something you missed might be somewhere else, so long as you look for it. I once got lost in a department store, looking for a music shop I had researched ahead of time. But eventually, after an hour of wandering, I came upon it. But had I stopped looking, I may have never found that keyboard I bought.
Right now, however, I’m standing alone on a cool, open air platform. I forgot my headphones back in my apartment. I’d go back to retrieve them; maybe I even had the time-but no, there’s the train now. It glides in. Everything here is efficient. Everything has its place. In a moment, my place will be on this train.
It’s quiet. Most of the time, wherever I am, it’s quiet. Conversations in public are often in hushed tones. No one is ever on the phone. It’s rude. Respect the air around you. Respect the quiet of other people. I wish I had my headphones.
4 stops go by. As though playing a roulette wheel, I decided to gamble and leave the train. After memorizing the station name, I leave the platform and set off on my evening stroll. Beneath my mask, my breath tries to catch up. So many stairs. I can smell the yakisoba I made for dinner. Onions. Fried noodles. Some spice. It’s all balled up beneath my mask.
I need some water.
As if detecting my thoughts, a vending machine materializes just around the corner. That’s the brilliant thing about Japan: the vending machines. They’re everywhere. A second later, and I have a 16 oz. bottle of water. I brought some yen. I guess I did buy something in the end.
I make sure to park myself and take a drink. I’m conscious a little about drinking in public. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen too many others do it. Walking and eating is frowned upon. Drinking and walking though…maybe if you stop, it’s okay.
Refreshed, I continue on. Here’s another interesting thing about Japan: the streets sometimes have sidewalks. Sometimes. Often, however, you’re just walking on the road like a suburb, but it feels different. The homes and apartment buildings and stores are much closer to the road. It feels as though I’m walking through a miniature model set. Cars will drive by, but I don’t have the irrational fear I had in America about being hit. They pass by carefully. I think I’ve only heard four cars honk in my three-plus weeks of being here.
A sloping, shape rises in the dark ahead. I notice the traditional shingles and pause to gaze at the shrine. It’s wedged between a small clothing store and a dark apartment complex. A small Japanese car is parked just in front of it and from within, I can hear someone moving around. The shrine is empty, save for whoever is there. I have yet to understand what to do at a shrine, but I enjoy the architecture and the culture around it. Eventually I’ll learn what to do. There are a few shrines in Japan that I want to visit.
In Kyoto there’s Fushimi Inari Shrine. Its vermillion torii gates are a sight to see, and the atmosphere will be something to experience. I’ll have to be sure to remember not to walk down the center. That’s reserved only for kami, or spirits.
There’s also Itsukushima Shrine in Hatsukaichi. At certain points of the day, I won’t be able to visit, as the tide will rise above the walking path to it, giving the shrine a picturesque aquatic look.
In my head as I think, an older gentleman steps out from the darkened shrine. He bows briefly to me before walking around the small car and getting in. A second later and he is gone.
I bowed back when he did. It’s become a habit at this point. When you’re surrounded by certain actions and gestures, it’s awkward not to do it. I stand out too much if I ignore these expectations. My American-centric mindset is only just beginning to warp out if its single mold. I’m trying to understand what’s appropriate; what’s not.
No one rubs their chopsticks together; in fact, it’s incredibly rude to do so. Be mindful of coughing in public. I invite several worried stares if I cough even slightly (especially in 2020!). Don’t cross your legs in which one foot is pointed towards someone. I’m disrespecting them by displaying the bottom of my shoe. They are beneath me, is the message I’m sending.
Of course, certain habits are hard to change. Why does crossing my legs feel so comfortable? Why do I feel the urge to shove my hands in my pockets, or gesture at students with a pen? It’s hard when you’re trying to fit into such a communal society. I was raised to be able to do what I want, and yet, it’s impolite in some circumstances. Regardless, I’m here in their country, not the other way around.
I have yet to really get that big culture shock. I might compare the moment, when it comes, to an earthquake. It will strike hard and out of nowhere. I may lose my footing and have to hold onto something. I will certainly be terrified. More importantly, I may be alone when it happens. I’ve been informed it may happen around the 3rd month since arriving. I have begun to leave the honeymoon phase of my transition to living in a new society. I describe the current state of mind as the routine setter. I’m focused only on work. Maybe on the weekends I’ll do something. I’ll call up anyone from the Chubu Crew and see if they’re free. Maybe I’ll do that shopping I’ve been needing to do since getting my apartment.
But that day will happen when I have that realization: I’m in a new country on my own. Not entirely alone, but not entirely comfortable. It’s hard to order food at a restaurant. It’s awkward to buy anything at a store. It’s strange to be surrounded by people that are a legitimate majority. And it’s strange that I don’t understand a word anyone is saying.
It’s at this moment that I realize I’ve walked a circuit around this random neighborhood. The train station glows in front of me, signaling to me its time to go home. I’m reminded of a childhood series I grew up reading: The Secrets of Droon. At the end of most of the books, a magical staircase appears and leads to a door that returns the kids to the real world.
Right now, this train station is that doorway. I’m not sure what world I’m in, but when I step through the front doors of the station, I realize nothing’s changed.
Because I was in the real world the entire time.