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Last Train Out of Tokyo

Just my musings on Japan. You will be rewarded with a picture at the end.

I sat on a train bound for Haneda International Airport. It was the last train out of Tokyo for the night, and yet it was still filled to the edges with a microcosm of Tokyoites: the weary businessman, the hip young couple, the fashionable young woman, the technology obsessed teenager. All were too focused on themselves to even be aware of the others around them, seemingly content with how their lives were at that particular moment.

I stared glassy-eyed out the window at the maze of roads lined with old and new buildings. The development of Tokyo has been astonishing. The city is lit up by thousands of neon lights where just 70 years ago, those lights would have been flames, an aftermath of the American bombing campaigns. The buildings would have been rubble, and the people drained of hope. It is easy to forget, or refuse to remember, that not too long ago Japan was a nation ruined, desperate for change. The people knew that their choice was between radical change and continued conflict, and the acceptance of the former brought the nation back on its feet, with a focus on rapid economic development and avoidance of foreign squabbles.

A modern day phoenix, the rise of Japan came with an increased global knowledge of its technology, food, and culture. It has arguably been most successful at spreading its cultural influence than any other Asian country in recent history. And as a consequence, this has brought up many ideas and opinions of Japan that are either too narrow, too wild, or just flat out wrong. For some, Japan is a fantasy land. Anime obsessed teens arrive in Japan eager to be surrounded by their childhood cartoon heroes, escaping into a world in which they can be somebody else. Some men come to Japan in search of females who, in their mind, are submissive and delicate, eager to please them. Still others think that everyone in Japan knows karate, sings karaoke, and eats sushi all day every day. For a country that has done so much to influence and inform the world, the world still doesn’t have a clear picture of what it’s really like there.

And then there are those of us who dropped themselves in Japan on a whim, not knowing where to begin. Yes, I had my own preconceptions of what Japan was like, but I did my best to push them out of my head and simply explore. With the exception of a few neighbourhoods where anime obsession was extreme, oftentimes I would go to a place not knowing what to expect, and though I wouldn’t necessarily find something brand new, I would be always pleasantly surprised by my surroundings. I would walk down a street and remark to myself how squeaky clean everything was. I would enter a restaurant not knowing what to eat but always left satisfied. I would visit a temple or a garden and learn a lesser known fact about Japanese culture (did you know that in Japanese folklore, evil spirits can only move in straight lines, so some bridges in gardens are built in a zig zag?). By letting myself, and the city, just be, I was able to momentarily remove all confusions about the country and forge a new narrative on a blank slate.

Japan can seem to be a land of contradictions, at once both adorable and horrid, modern yet conservative, polite yet hawkish. Though contradictions and dichotomies can be fun, to view an entire society through extremes is much too simplistic, and fails to grasp at the heart of the society. The major thing I noticed about Japanese society? Normalcy. People going about their everyday lives in peace, just like we would back home. Sure, there are the occasional crazy cliques and trends, but it’s not like we don’t have our fair share of those either. To view Japan as an inverse to Western society is, by most standards, inaccurate.

Most Westerners spend only a short amount of time in a foreign land, which often amounts to only confirming their beliefs about the place. It is impossible to penetrate the heart of society in so short a time period, and by no means am I asking anyone to take on this Herculean task. However, if you are travelling in Japan and have only a brief amount of time at your disposal, I urge you to do one thing you thought you could never do in the country, or find one thing you thought you could never see. This will likely be one of the more interesting stories you’ll take back home with you, and hopefully you will change or expand at least one person’s perspective.

As the glare of neon glazed my eyes over, I sat back and couldn’t help but wonder what Japan would be up to next. Is this a civilization in decline? Or is it just that other countries are now catching up? Despite these questions, one cannot escape Japan’s enormous influence on our modern world, from how we cook our food, to how we commute to work, to how we entertain ourselves. This was all accomplished in 70 short years. Though it would take much longer than that for any outsider to truly understand Japan, it sure as hell shouldn’t stop anybody from trying.

I will definitely be making a trip back.

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Here’s your picture, with Mt. Fuji in the background. I’m gonna climb that sucker one day
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